Revision needed for catch-all law

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 1:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 1:02am

Supporters of accused 71-year-old mainland journalist Gao Yu had hoped that age and health considerations would prompt the court to show leniency. Perhaps her claim that a televised confession was forced from her with threats against her son did not help her cause. In any case, a sentence of seven years' jail, which we report today, is a stern reminder of the omnipresence of the mainland's broadly defined state secrets law.

In the circumstances, it will send a chilling message to other journalists about handling ill-defined state secrets. It is not uncommon for the resourceful among them to find other outlets for material they cannot get published or are forbidden to pursue. In this way information of public interest often finds its way into the public domain, without doing any harm. Gao was accused of obtaining a secret central party circular known as Document No 9, warning cadres against Western influences, and supplying it to an overseas website, after which it circulated widely. When she was charged state media had also begun reporting many elements of it as a matter of public interest.

Soon after her detention the state media regulator issued a directive banning journalists from independently revealing information gathered in their work, specifically including state and commercial secrets and information that has not been officially disclosed. The government determines what are state secrets, which are defined as any political, economic or defence matter involving national security and interests. This is so broad that the law has unlimited potential for non-compliance - and abuse by officials wanting to hide information. Understandably, it has prompted calls from the foreign media and business sectors for a better definition.

It remains the duty of journalists to report matters of public interest. Gao's lawyer says she may appeal. Even if she is guilty as charged, her punishment sends a regrettable message about intolerance of criticism and debate. A revision of the catch-all law to bring more certainty and transparency would do more to enhance the image of a modern, confident China.