"It is a sad reminder of the Chinese government's failure to reach international standards of press freedom that it continues to persecute its bravest journalists," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.
The international jury that named Cheng the 2005 recipient of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize said that he "represents Chinese journalism at its best. He speaks out for the weak and checks the strong," according to a UN press release. The $25,000 prize is given each year, at locations around the world, to individuals and organizations demonstrating courage in defending freedom of expression.
Cheng was the editor-in-chief of the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily) in March 2003 when it exposed the beating death in detention of young graphic designer Sun Zhigang. Public outcry over his death led to the arrest of several local government and police officials, and prompted authorities to change the laws regarding the detention of migrants.
In an apparent act of retaliation, authorities imprisoned two of Cheng's colleagues on corruption charges. The newspaper's general manager Yu Huafeng and former editor Li Minying remain in prison, and are serving sentences of eight and six years, respectively.
Cheng himself was imprisoned on March 19, 2004 and remained in detention without charge until his release on August 30, 2004. The journalist was later stripped of his Communist Party membership, making it difficult for him to practice his profession. Cheng now holds a management position at Nanfang Tiyu (Southern Sports), a sister publication to Nanfang Dushi Bao.
"As for not being able to go to Dakar, I feel very regretful and apologetic," Cheng said in a statement posted on the Internet, according to the South China Morning Post. He called on journalists in China to "speak the truth."
"There is fear and lies everywhere and we are getting further and further from the truth," said Cheng in the statement, according to the news report. "If we allow ourselves to get used to it, we will be harming ourselves."
Cheng's online statement, as reported by the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post, was unavailable on China-based Web sites on Monday and may have been censored by authorities there.