Despite protests by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association and others, the city's leaders have deferred to mainland law in the detention of veteran journalist and permanent Hong Kong resident Ching Cheong. This is a mistake. The freedom of the press, guaranteed by the Basic Law, is meaningless unless the local government defends the right of journalists to report news from the mainland.
"We should not interfere with the law-enforcement and judicial process in the mainland," said Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, adding that Hong Kong officials are not experts on mainland law. Acting Chief Executive Henry Tang Ying-yen and chief executive candidate Donald Tsang Yam-kuen have made similar statements.
Journalists in Hong Kong are right to be concerned by the government's willingness to trust a judicial process that offers almost no protection to the media. Residents, who benefit from a high degree of press freedom and transparency on matters of public interest, share that concern.
Mainland journalists routinely risk official harassment and imprisonment. China has led the world in jailing journalists for six years running; at least 42 were imprisoned at the end of last year, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Targeting them is a primary way for the government to control the flow of sensitive information on human-rights abuses, political affairs, and issues of public health and safety.
Ching has been detained since April on unspecified allegations of spying. The Foreign Ministry claims that he confessed to trafficking in classified information for foreign intelligence agencies - but officials have not specified what information Ching is accused of gathering, or for whom. He has been denied access to a lawyer and has been unable to tell his side of the story to his wife or his employers at The Straits Times.
China has an undeniable history of using national security as a pretext for jailing journalists who are doing nothing more than practising their trade. Broad and vaguely defined "state secrets" laws have been a tool for sentencing journalists to lengthy prison terms for exposing information that has not been officially vetted, regardless of whether the disclosures threaten national security.
Two other journalists have been imprisoned on similar allegations in the past 10 months. Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years after being convicted of leaking state secrets for posting online his notes from a propaganda department directive that was given to the editorial board of his magazine. The directive gave instructions on gathering information and covering the return of overseas dissidents to mark the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
Another journalist, New York Times researcher Zhao Yan , has been held incommunicado without trial since September last year on suspicion of leaking state secrets abroad.
The nature of these "state secret" charges was used in both cases to limit the journalists' right to counsel. Shi's lawyer was not given access to the document his client was accused of leaking. Zhao has been barred from speaking to a lawyer, his friends, family members, or colleagues since he was jailed.
Local leaders should do everything in their power to ensure that this does not happen to Ching.
The Sars crisis underlined the dangers of restricting the flow of public information from the mainland. Ching's case raises an important opportunity for leaders to demonstrate that their concern for Hong Kong citizens' best interests outweighs the political risk of defending them.
Kristin Jones is the Asia research associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York
Reprinted from The South China Morning Post © 2005 South China Morning Post Ltd. All rights reserved.