Journalists on the critical list

THE question posed under the mugshots of two Hong Kong journalists - Leung Wai-man and Xi Yang - on the first-issue cover of On the Record, a new local media review, is disturbingly simple: ''Who's next?'' Now we have the answer.

Gao Yu, a mainland contributor and correspondent for several Hong Kong publications, is finally on trial for allegedly ''leaking state secrets to foreigners'' after more than five months in detention.

The trial of the 50-year-old journalist comes after this month's conviction of Ming Pao reporter Xi Yang for ''stealing and espionage of state secrets on banking''. After an unsuccessful appeal last week, Xi, 38, must now serve a 12-year sentence.

Leung Wai-man of the Chinese newspaper Express is still banned from entering China 17 months after she ''confessed her guilt and demonstrated a good attitude''.

She was released after a week's detention for allegedly bribing Chinese officials to obtain ''classified state documents''.

In the face of Xi's harsh sentence, it appears local journalists have every reason to fear for their future and that of their profession. Concern over Chinese Government retaliation, censorship (either state or self-imposed) after 1997 and smothered Hong Kong press freedom is greater than ever.

But Hong Kong journalists are not alone in those fears.

The latest survey released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) finds reporters worldwide are risking their lives in the course of their work, while press freedom is not something they can take for granted.

The committee, a New York-based non-profit group partially funded by large news organisations in the US, concludes that changes worldwide may have increased the risks to the profession.

''For years, the primary fear of independent journalists in much of the world has been retaliation from government forces on the totalitarian left or the authoritarian right,'' writes CPJ's executive director William Orme.

''While these remain serious concerns, in many countries the most direct assaults on press freedoms now come from religious fundamentalists and dissident nationalists.'' Entitled Attack on the Press in 1993, the survey, available in Hong Kong this month, finds at least 56 journalists around the world were killed in the line of duty last year.

Most of the deaths, it says, ''were deliberate assassinations of reporters working in their own home towns''.

The latest count shows that at least 126 journalists were imprisoned in March this year in 28 countries because of their reporting, a significant increase on the 90 jailed at the same time the previous year.

It is perhaps alarming, but hardly surprising, to find China topping the 17-page list of jailed journalists, with 22 in prison.

Among those behind bars are Chen Yanbin, a former Qinghua University student who, with Zhang Yafei, produced an unofficial magazine called Tielu (Iron Currents); Liu De, a member of the editorial board of the literary magazine Jianna Literature and Arts Journal in Sichuan province; Wang Jun, a People's Daily Overseas Edition reporter; and Wang Juntao, editor of Jingji Xue Zhoubao (Economic Weekly).

Charges against mainland journalists include making counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement, villifying the socialist system, fomenting a counter-revolutionary plot, conspiring to subvert the government and circulating rumour-mongering leaflets.

Ethiopia and Kuwait are second on the list with 18 jailed journalists each; then come Syria, with 12; Turkey, 11; and Vietnam, nine.

Journalists are also in jail in Albania, Algeria, Benin, Croatia, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Burma, Peru, Rwanda, South Korea, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Ukraine and Western Sahara.

In Kuwait, five journalists were given life sentences for working with the Iraqi occupation newspaper Al-Nida. The rest received 10-year jail sentences, also for their involvement with the occupation paper.

Government repression against the new independent press in Ethiopia has aroused concern among human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which is pressing for the release of jailed journalists there.

According to the international lobby group, those arrested are publishers, editors and journalists of independent and mostly Amharic-language magazines, many of which have been launched with official permission since 1992.

All were held responsible for articles criticising the Meles Zenawi government, which the authorities regarded as violating a press law issued in October 1992.

Concerns have also been expressed over the Kenyan Penal Code which Amnesty International believes is being used to restrict press freedom there.

Last month, four Kenyan journalists - Ngumo wa Kuria, Peter Rianga Makori, Kamau Kanyanga and John Nyaosi - were charged with subversion for publishing an article reporting renewed political violence in Molo, 200 kilometres northwest of Nairobi.

All four were arrested and charged with subversion under the Kenyan Penal Code for ''an act prejudicial to the security of the state''.

Amnesty International has also noted a serious increase in journalist ''disappearances'' in Turkey in the past few months. Four vanished last month, with police denying any involvement.

In Asia, international pressure is mounting on the South Korean Government for the immediate release of Choi Chin-sop, serving a three-year prison term on charges under the national security law.

Choi had written a number of articles on human rights issues, some of which were said by the authorities to be pro-North Korean. He was also accused of belonging to an ''anti-state'' group, alleged to be connected to a ''spy'' ring operated by the North Korean Government.

Vikram Parekh, CPJ's Asia programme co-ordinator, believes ethnic and religious conflicts continue to impede press freedom in South Asia: ''While journalists in some of the more autocratic East Asian states were frequently jailed for violating state secrecy laws, ethnic and religious conflicts continue to impede press freedom in South Asia.'' He also notes Hanoi's suppression of press freedom and other civil liberties was little discussed in the debate that preceded the lifting of United States' trade restrictions on Vietnam.

''Proponents of the argument that free trade leads inevitably to a free press need only have looked at the example provided by China to find ample evidence suggesting otherwise,'' Mr Parekh said.

In the global context, Avner Gidron, senior programme co-ordinator of CJP, says the statistics in the committee report capture only ''a snapshot at one particular time''.

It is difficult to say whether governments are more repressive than previous years, he believes. But other information, such as the number of journalists killed in the line of duty and those being detained short term, suggests journalism is becoming an increasingly dangerous profession.

''There are many reasons for this,'' Mr Gidron said. ''Firstly there are more parts of the world where journalists have found independent and underground channels to speak out.'' Also, some countries are undergoing political changes and transition that contribute to instability or even civil wars.

''Press freedom is being stifled and there are always going to be attempts to stifle it,'' he told the South China Morning Post from New York. ''I believe the press and the government will always have an adversarial relationship . . . in the United States, Syria or China. [Press freedom] is more stifled than before because of the increased number of independent journalists for them to stifle.'' The CPJ and Amnesty International are among many organisations worldwide pressing for the release of these political prisoners. They do so by lobbying both the governments of member countries and the authorities imprisoning journalists.

They agree that China is, by far, the most reluctant to continue a dialogue. Although admitting their pressure may not result in immediate release, they say some prisoners have received better treatment because of it.

Andrew Kelly, spokesman for Amnesty International in London, says the results of its lobbying vary and are not always immediate: ''But we have been doing this for over 30 years and we have a good success rate. We write to prison governors and political figures to ask for the prisoner's conditions, we press for fair trials, release and appeal on the accused's behalf.'' Mr Kelly adds that press freedom around the world is something that Amnesty International is interested in and will work on promoting.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong the future of the local press remains unclear. Daisy Li Yuet-wah, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, told a group of fellow reporters last week that the profession had anticipated an increase in mainland pressure as 1997 approached.

''But we never expected that local reporters would have to contend with the Chinese Government for the next 12 years because of one reporter . . . today it is Xi Yang, tomorrow it could be you and me,'' she said.