As activists highlighted growing concerns over ever-tightening controls on the Chinese media ahead of World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, a U.S. official called once more on Beijing to release a prominent political journalist.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Jeff Rathke said officials are stepping up efforts ahead of Global Press Freedom Day on Sunday, to promote press freedom around the world.
Independent Chinese journalist Gao Yu, who was imprisoned for seven years for allegedly "leaking state secrets to an overseas organization," is top of the list of journalists the U.S. is calling on foreign governments to release, Rathke said.
"Ms. Gao has been internationally recognized for her significant contributions to press freedom and civil society in China since her career began in 1979," Rathke told reporters.
"Her conviction is part of a disturbing pattern of government action against those who peacefully question official Chinese policies and actions," he said.
"We join the international community in calling on Chinese authorities to release Ms. Gao immediately."
Rathke's comments come after the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned in a report last week that China is now the eighth most repressive regime for press freedom, with at least 44 journalists behind bars in 2015, the largest number since the group began counting in 1990.
The CPJ's Asia Program coordinator Bob Dietz has also urged the International Olympics Committee not to award Beijing the winning bid for the 2022 Winter Games.
"From my point of view, giving China the Games again is a slap in the face to the growing number of journalists behind bars there, Gao Yu among them," Dietz wrote in a recent blog post.
"And if past experience is an indicator, attaching conditions of expanded media freedoms or broadened human rights are expectations that will be met in name only," he wrote, crediting Gao Yu with forseeing that any concessions to a freer media made ahead of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing would only be temporary.
"That approach did not work in 2008, and it will not work in 2022," Dietz said. "Gao Yu was right. I was wrong."
Document No. 9
Gao was jailed earlier this month for allegedly leaking a policy paper from China's ruling Communist Party, known as Document No. 9, which lists "seven taboos" to be avoided in public debate and policy-making, including democracy, freedom of the press, judicial independence and criticism of the party's historical record.
"Document 9 made it clear that the role of the media is to support the party’s unilateral rule," the CPJ reported.
William Nee, China researcher at the London-based rights group Amnesty International, said Gao should be released immediately.
"We all know that Document No. 9 was in and of itself an attack on the freedom of the press," Nee said. "It says that the role of a journalist is to write nice things on behalf of the government."
Nee said there were "fundamental problems" with the case against Gao.
"It showed no respect for freedom of the press, and it seems that things are getting tighter and tighter," Nee said.
"It's pretty clear that the Chinese government is getting keener and keener on controlling ideas and ideology," he said.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who is also a close friend of Gao's, said Document No. 9 has served to highlight a deep ideological division between traditional Communist Party ideology and what it sees as "Western" notions of press freedom.
Beijing has typically dismissed any criticism of its rights record as interference in its internal affairs.
But Hu said activists working to promote freedom of expression and human rights value any intervention from overseas.
"I hope the entire international community will stand firm together and take a firm line in criticizing China," Hu said. "These demands from the U.S. in no way constitute interference in our internal affairs."
"We have had expressions of concern from the E.U., from the U.S. and other democratic countries," he said.
"The Communist Party will repeat over and over like a stuck record that these are its internal affairs, and they will use their power to bring cases to retaliate against individuals," Hu said.
"They are a criminal and anti-human regime, which suppresses the political rights of its people."
Reported by Xin Lin and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.