Chinese Editor Freed After 4 Years

Supporters say Yu Huafeng was held in retaliation for his reporting.
Supporters say Yu Huafeng was held in retaliation for his reporting. (Ho)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 10, 2008

BEIJING, Feb. 9 -- A senior editor at a Chinese newspaper has been released from prison after serving four years on corruption charges that journalists said were trumped up by local officials to retaliate for aggressive reporting.

Yu Huafeng, general manager and deputy editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily in the southern city of Guangzhou, walked out of prison in the Guangzhou suburbs early Friday in good health and good spirits, his colleagues at the newspaper said Saturday. He made no public statements, but his family said he was celebrating the Chinese New Year.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedoms group, said the release shows that the Chinese government sometimes responds to pressure from abroad by human rights groups, particularly ahead of the Beijing Olympics, scheduled for August. The group noted that Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based journalist for the Straits Times in Singapore, had been released three days earlier after serving half of a five-year sentence for espionage.

When asked about such cases, the Chinese government has repeatedly said they are handled strictly according to the law. In fact, Chinese lawyers have explained, China's courts are under the control of the Communist Party and judges routinely take guidance from party officials on sensitive cases.

In that light, Reporters Without Borders urged foreign governments and human rights organizations to continue pressing Chinese authorities. "The campaigning for the release of other prisoners of conscience, including Hu Jia, must be stepped up before the Olympic Games," it said.

Hu, an online activist in Beijing who has been detained since December, was charged Jan. 28 with inciting subversion with his blogging and has been denied access to a lawyer on grounds that the case involves state secrets.

Yu was sentenced to 12 years in jail in March 2004 on charges that he and Li Minying, a former director of the newspaper's parent corporation, the Southern Daily Group, dishonestly peeled off profits and distributed the money to lower-ranking employees as bonuses. Li was sentenced to 11 years but released last year. The chief editor, Cheng Yizhong, was detained in connection with the case but freed without trial.

Echoing complaints from local journalists, Reporters Without Borders said Yu had been the "victim of a conspiracy by officials in Guangdong province who wanted to punish the newspaper for its outspoken reports."

According to the journalists, authorities in Guangdong were annoyed because of a Southern Metropolis Daily report in December 2003 revealing that a case of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, had been covered up despite pledges of openness by the central government in Beijing. Officials reacted with particular fury because they already had been embarrassed by the newspaper's reporting in March of that year about an out-of-town student who was beaten to death while in police custody in Guangzhou, the provincial capital.

Revelation of the student's death resulted in changes in the rules under which Chinese police can detain people found to be without proper residency papers. It enhanced the reputation of Southern Daily Group newspapers as being particularly bold in pushing the limits of Communist Party censorship.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company