HONG KONG — ; Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou have slashed the prison sentences handed down to the former editors of a cutting-edge newspaper, apparently responding to widespread anger at official bids to curb the press.
The Guangzhou Intermediate People's court cut the sentence of Yu Huafeng, former general manager of the Southern Metropolitan Daily , from 12 years to eight years on appeal. Former editor-in-chief Li Minying had his sentence cut from 11 years to five years, official media reported.
A district court convicted them March 19 of embezzlement and of offering and accepting bribes. Former editor Cheng Yizhong has also been detained on corruption charges but has not yet been sentenced.
Many in China, including current employees of the newspaper interviewed by RFA, say the cases are a blatant example of revenge by Guangzhou officials who were shamed by the newspaper's exposure of how the city handled its SARS outbreak in 2002.
The case has become a focus for debates about media freedom in a country where official corruption is rife, and few channels exist to check the powers of local government and Party officials.
Yu Huafeng's wife said she rejected the verdicts by both trial and appeal court. "Of course I don't accept it," she told Hong Kong reporters. "This is a total set-up. I just want a verdict of not guilty. That's the only thing that matters. There's no difference otherwise between a sentence of eight years and one of 12 years."
Yu's lawyer, Qu Ziyong said: "Of course this is a trumped-up case. We will be appealing to a higher court."
The newspaper shamed local officials with its coverage of the initial outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Guangdong Province. "The Southern Metropolitan Daily ... had its biggest ever story [the outbreak of SARS], ready to roll off the presses, and the authorities didn't let them print it," Frank Lu, founder of the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in China told RFA's Mandarin service.
"If they had reported it, they could certainly have prevented all those deaths in Hong Kong," Lu said, adding that Cheng's detention came on the very same evening that the paper once again reported fresh cases of SARS in the city earlier this year.
Employees at the paper told RFA in April that the corruption cases were the result of retaliation by vice-secretary of the Guangzhou municipal government Zhang Guifang and police chief Su Shuisheng against the newspaper, which interfered with their personal agendas with its hard-hitting news coverage.
"They will never run out of excuses to incriminate us," the employee said.
The Southern Metropolitan Daily was set up as a commercial newspaper as part of a development plan for China's media, so the corruption convictions may have sent a message to Beijing, resulting in lighter sentences, observers said.
"It was the product of a mutual compromise, but it's not much of a compromise," Shenzhen-based dissident Zhao Dagong told RFA's Mandarin service.
According to last week's Asiaweek magazine, former Guangdong provincial party secretary Ren Zhongyi wrote a letter to the current party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, warning him to take heed of the widespread opposition among the general public, academics, and legal professionals to the handling of the Southern Metropolitan Daily case. Zhang reportedly said that this case should be dealt with leniently.
"I don't think that a reduction of sentence from 12 years to eight years is particularly lenient," Zhao said.
Chinese leaders have called on the media to help expose corruption in Party and government officials, and to work harder to reflect the reality of ordinary people's lives.
But reporters are caught between top-down directives from Party propaganda bureaux and the vested interests of local corrupt officials and criminal organizations.