Issues remain despite release of Ching

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2008, 12:00am

The release on parole of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong in time for the Lunar New Year celebration will be warmly welcomed. Though found guilty of spying, Ching remains widely regarded as a patriot. His arrest in 2005, lengthy detention, secret trial and imprisonment have done nothing to change that. The abiding concern of family, friends, supporters and fellow journalists has been his deteriorating health while in jail.

They have never given up hope for medical parole, or least the concession of being allowed to serve out his time in Hong Kong, nearer his family. They therefore have good reason to be grateful to the mainland authorities that soon after he became eligible for parole, he was back home in Hong Kong with his wife, who led the campaign for clemency. They have reason too to be grateful to the Hong Kong government for its efforts behind the scenes, within the constraints of the reality that it cannot interfere in the mainland justice system, to make representations on Ching's behalf at the official level.

Ching's speedy parole does nothing to address the deep misgivings about his case. But it sends a positive message at a festive time and does no harm to the maturing relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing. To this day, sadly, the relevant law under which Ching was charged with a crime that could have resulted in the death penalty remains unclear. From available information it seems the case against him was weak.

Security authorities arrested Ching, the chief China reporter for the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times in April 2005, but it was four months before formal charges were revealed by Xinhua. He was alleged then to have been spying for Taiwan for five years, and to have confessed to collecting political, economic and military information classified as state secrets in return for payments of millions of Hong Kong dollars. When he was convicted a year later, the court said Ching had passed on 'national secrets and intelligence' to a Taiwanese foundation that he 'knew' to be a spy organisation. For that he had received 300,000 yuan. At the time Ching's supporters said he might have been trying to play a middleman role in bringing the mainland and Taiwan closer together, having filed analyses to relevant bodies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Worrying questions remain unanswered, such as how did a reporter for a foreign newspaper, whose activities on the mainland were well known, get access to this material for so long if it contained state secrets? Every nation is entitled to safeguard its secrets, but it is difficult to pass judgment on the case against Ching in the absence of details. There was a need for greater transparency. Even if he were guilty, justice was not seen to be done by the wider community. The mainland's secrecy laws remain vague and open to abuse, leaving journalists, academics and others at risk of breaching them. This does nothing for the development of a healthy media sector and of academic research. There is still a need for the laws to be clarified so everyone knows where they stand.

Ching's release will give heart to international journalists' organisations that have been campaigning for the release of jailed journalists ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August. It is hoped that, as the mainland continues to open up, the authorities will be confident enough to relax the tight control maintained over journalists.