A journalist serving a 13-year jail term for reporting about a bogus irrigation project has been released five years early to unusually vocal official acclaim for his determination to fight corruption.
Gao Qinrong, previously an investigative journalist for a state-run newspaper in northern China’s Shanxi province, was imprisoned in 1998 and released earlier this month, according to media activists and state news reports.
Such developments rarely win a mention in China’s state-controlled media, given the political sensitivities over Beijing’s violations of freedom of press and other civil liberties.
Yet, Gao’s case is being touted as evidence of the country’s willingness to empower the media to help fight corruption.
“That the local reporter Gao Qinrong was framed and imprisoned after revealing the frightful spectacle of local corruption is a highly irregular situation,” the state-run newspaper Southern Weekend said in a commentary accompanying a lengthy interview with Gao after his release.
“Why should media today have to face this problem or that problem when reporting on the problem of corruption?” it said. Gao, 51, was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
In the interview, he insisted he was right in publishing the reports that resulted in his imprisonment.
“To be a journalist, you have to speak for the people,” Gao told the Southern Weekend. “If I hadn’t published that report, it would be as if the case never happened. We can’t all be yes-men, if we are, what hope is there for our country?”
“Corruption must be exposed,” he said.
The authorities’ motives in highlighting Gao’s case are unclear.
“His release is hardly a sign of reform or of relaxation, if anyone is suggesting such,” said Arnold Zeitlin, a media consultant who teaches journalism in China. “After all, the state took away eight years of his life on trumped-up charges, on which so many others still are jailed.”
Gao drew national attention with a 1998 report in the Shanxi Youth Daily that a $35 million irrigation project in Yuncheng, a city in northern China, was a scam meant to boost the careers of local officials. It was published in the Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily and followed on state-run television.
Months later, Gao was arrested by Yuncheng officials on charges of bribery and fraud, among others, and sentenced after a brief trial to 13 years in prison.
In the years since, both foreign and domestic supporters, including some lawmakers, have made appeals on Gao’s behalf. His release comes as China’s top leaders are orchestrating simultaneous corruption crackdowns in several major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The scandals, involving top city leaders, at least one central government official and influential businessmen, appear to be aimed at appeasing public anger over corruption while shoring up the power base of President Hu Jintao ahead of an important party congress next year.
China often gives conflicting signals regarding the freedom of journalists to do their jobs.
Earlier this month, the government announced it was relaxing decades-old restrictions on foreign reporters, giving foreign media greater freedom to travel and report in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
However, authorities continue to use vaguely worded state secrecy and subversion charges to suppress criticism of the ruling Communist Party. Journalist advocacy groups report at least 30 reporters imprisoned in China.
On Tuesday, a Beijing court sentenced a researcher at a prestigious Chinese think tank to 20 years in prison on charges of leaking state secrets, according to a human rights group. The researcher, Lu Jianhua, had been linked to Ching Cheong, a reporter for Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper who was jailed by mainland China on spying charges.
In the interview with the Southern Weekend, Gao said he hoped to find work to help support his family, who get by on his wife’s salary of only about $100 a month.
“Luckily, after these eight years, I’m still alive,” he said.