Despite the release of dissident journalist Gao Yu, media in China still have to walk tightrope when it comes to ‘classified’ information

Reporters and editors are constantly reminded about keeping secrets and avoiding criticism of the Communist Party

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 10:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 10:40pm

The release of 71-year-old ailing dissident journalist Gao Yu (高瑜) from jail last week on medical parole is a welcome act of compassion for a woman who did not want to die in captivity, even if cynics suspect it probably had more to do with sparing Beijing the headache of more international criticism. Gao’s case prompted the authorities to specifically ban journalists from independently revealing information gathered in their work and to require them to sign confidentiality agreements.

It arose from the publication on overseas websites of the contents of a Communist Party document. Later, mainland official media effectively made public the “secret” document when it ran commentaries warning against the influence of foreign values, such as human rights and free speech. These articles were seen by liberals as a setback to hopes for democratic reform under the leadership of President Xi Jinping (習近平 ).

It was for allegedly “leaking” the circular to a foreign website that Gao was detained. At her trial earlier this year she pleaded innocence, but admitted guilt at an appeal hearing before a Beijing court last week, after which her sentence of seven years was reduced to five – still a harsh penalty for just doing her job, if indeed she did break the story. After all, it remains the duty of journalists to report matters of public interest. Compassion finally prevailed in another Beijing court that considered a medical report.

Gao’s case is a reminder that China is not relaxing its crackdown on human rights activists, as evidenced by two developments. One is the jailing of leading media freedom activist Yang Maodong – also known by his pen name Guo Feixiong – for six years on Friday for disturbing public order by organising rallies. Another is a new rule that threatens party members with loss of membership for criticising the party. This has become a contentious issue even within the party. But on the day that news of Gao’s release broke, the People’s Daily ran a commentary defending the no-criticism policy.