It’s good news when the Chinese government frees one of its many wrongly jailed journalists. And the recent announcement of Shi Tao’s prison release was particularly welcome. Shi Tao, a reporter for the Contemporary Business News, served more than eight years of a ten year sentence after a 2005 conviction for violating one of the most dangerously ambiguous elements of the Chinese criminal code, the Law on Guarding State Secrets . Shi Tao’s “crime”? Sharing with an overseas website the details of an official memorandum on media censorship directives related to the 2004 anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing and other cities.
Shi Tao’s defense that he was unaware the memorandum was a “state secret” didn’t help. The law allows the government to retroactively classify any materials as “secret” and those determinations cannot be legally challenged. As recently as 2005, information related to domestic natural disasters was also classified and even now information about industrially-contaminated soil continues to be so. The infinitely broad criteria for classification of state secrets also includes information related to “economic and social development” as well as to a catch-all “other matters” category.
This law is just one tool the government uses to ensure the media provide “correct” news coverage as defined by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The government’s state censorship system has strict guidelines on taboo topics, officially deemed as "sensitive" or min-gan (敏感). Consequences for reporters who violate those rules range from physical abuse and job loss to imprisonment. If the official Beijing Forum on Human Rights wants a serious discussion this week about “ties between human rights and the rule of law,” they should start with the dangers of China’s state secrets law and Shi Tao’s lost eight years in prison.