Chinese authorities have given an early release to a prominent dissident jailed on charges of divulging state secrets, but activists said the move does not indicate Beijing is loosening its firm grip on information.
Journalist Shi Tao, who was convicted after Yahoo disclosed details of his email to Chinese authorities in a case that earned the Internet giant a rebuke from rights groups, was freed 15 months ahead of schedule on Aug. 23, U.K.-based PEN International said over the weekend.
Shi had been given a 10-year prison sentence in 2005 over an email he sent detailing government media restrictions ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising. Police identified him using information provided by Yahoo.
PEN International, a writers’ organization which promotes freedom of speech, quoted Shi as saying that he had been treated “relatively well” in prison and continued to write.
It did not say why Shi, who is a member of the organization, had been let out early, though such releases can be granted in China for good behavior in prison.
Patrick Poon, executive secretary of PEN’s Hong Kong branch, the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, said the dissident’s early release should not be taken as a sign of loosening media or Internet controls.
“Even though Shi Tao has been released early, there are no signs that the Chinese authorities are going to loosen control over cyberspace,” he told RFA’s Mandarin Service.
“Recently there are many cases of Internet crackdowns, and thus I am still pessimistic on the future of Internet freedom in China,” he said, following dozens of detentions across the country in recent weeks of netizens accused of online “rumor-mongering.”
'Long shadows' over freedom of expression
Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee, said in a statement announcing Shi Tao’s release that it came “at a time when there seem to be increasingly long shadows over freedom of expression in China.”
“Shi Tao’s arrest and imprisonment, because of the actions of Yahoo China, signaled a decade ago the challenges to freedom of expression of Internet surveillance and privacy that we are now dealing with,” she said.
RFA's attempts to contact Shi Tao were unsuccessful over the weekend, with his phone ringing unanswered.
Poon said Shi Tao and his mother are under pressure not to speak to the media.
Charged 'when authorities want'
The prosecution against Shi, who was arrested in 2004, was based on an email about the media restrictions that he sent to the editor of a New York-based rights website.
Rights groups say Shi has never seen full text of the “top-secret” orders he was convicted of leaking.
Hangzhou-based journalist Zan Aizong said Shi had been “trapped” by the law after he passed on information that authorities had freely shared with him.
“Strictly speaking, when a so-called secret document is announced to a reporter like Shi Tao, it is no longer secret,” he told RFA. “Also, Shi Tao didn’t release the original copy of the document, as he didn’t have it in the first place.”
He said many Chinese journalists are still vulnerable to punishment for spreading information in the same way Shi had been.
“When journalists are invited to attend government meetings, the officials often request them to write down the gist or principles of certain inside documents from the higher-ups, which will form the basis of their later reports. This was exactly what happened to Shi Tao,” he said.
“So all reporters can be charged at any time when the authorities want to do so.”
Yahoo welcomes release
Yahoo, which gave to Chinese authorities information about Shi’s email account, defended itself against rights groups’ accusations at the time of Shi’s trial, saying it had to abide by local laws.
Testifying before the U.S. Congress in 2007, top company officials nodded in silent apology to Shi’s mother after saying they were legally obliged to divulge information about their users to the Chinese government and that they were unaware it would be used to convict dissidents.
Later that year, Shi's family reached a private settlement with Yahoo.
On Monday, the company welcomed the news of Shi’s release, sending its “best wishes” to the journalist and his family.
"We reiterate our belief that no one, anywhere in the world, should ever be imprisoned for peacefully exercising the universal right to free expression,” Reuters news agency quoted a company statement as saying.
Yahoo shut its China email service last month as part of a gradual pull-back from the country since buying a stake in China's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd in 2005.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.