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In Defense of a Free Press: Remembering Imprisoned Journalist Qi Chonghuai on World Press Freedom Day

November 16, 2011

[Translation and Abridgment by Human Rights in China]


Qi Chonghai speaks at a bureau chiefs’ staff briefing for China Work Safety News, Beijing, early 2005. Photo courtesy of Qi’s lawyer Wang Quanzhang.

Today, May 3, [2011], is World Press Freedom Day, designated by the UN to increase awareness of freedom of the press and to remind governments to respect and promote free expression.

On this day, former Fazhi Zaobao reporter Mr. Qi Chonghuai has been imprisoned for nearly four years. If the Shandong authorities do not imitate Chongqing and prosecute him again for “crimes” that they had previously “missed,”1 then he will be released next month.

Because he courageously acted as a government watchdog, took a stand to help the weak, exposed official corruption, and defended the rights of citizens, Qi Chonghuai has become yet another casualty in the fight for freedom of speech and of the press. What happened to him is also a sorrow for our legal profession. . . .

Qi Chonghuai (齐崇淮, also known as 齐崇怀) lives in Jinan, Shandong Province, and was born in Zoucheng, Shandong Province, in 1965. Qi is a veteran journalist with more than a decade of experience. . . . Throughout his career, Qi has been committed to independent, objective, and impartial news reporting, speaking up for the weak, exposing official corruption, and defending the rights of citizens.

On April 28, 2007, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the National Audit Office, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and other government departments jointly issued the Notice Regarding the Clean-up of Party and Government Office Building Construction Projects [unofficial translation] (关于开展党政机关办公楼等楼堂馆所建设项目清理工作的通). The notice addressed the trend of increasingly luxurious local Party and government office buildings constructed in violation of regulations and required officials to report and stop such construction projects. On June 14, 2007, pictures of a luxurious office building of the municipal government of Tengzhou, Shandong Province, appeared on major websites, including Xinhuanet, the website of China’s official news agency. This caused a public uproar that targeted the corrupt officials of Tengzhou.

Afterwards, the whistleblowers, netizens “Baizhantang” (白展堂) and “qichonghuai,” were detained by the Tengzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau on suspicion of “economic problems” (涉嫌经济问题). Neitzen “qichonghuai” is the reporter Qi Chonghuai of the present case. . . .

In the afternoon of August 20, 2007, . . . I received a phone call from a woman stating that she was Qi Chonghuai’s wife. She asked if I could represent Qi as defense counsel. She spoke of the family’s difficulties: she did odd jobs at an insurance company; she and Qi had two children who were not yet ten years old; and the bank book of the family’s account of 500 yuan ($78) had even been confiscated by the Tengzhou police, when they came to their home to detain Qi. The family had nothing except the four walls around them. Even so, she showed a great understanding of and support for lawyers and said that she could come up with a way to pay the travel expenses. During the course of the investigation, indictment, trial, and appeal, she was able to raise 6,000 yuan ($938). . . .

My thought at the time was that the case could not go without defense just because the family could not afford lawyers’ fees. This case demanded the truth, justice, and the light of day! My only option was to get involved immediately and without conditions. . . .

After speaking with Qi’s wife, . . . I immediately contacted my colleague, lawyer Li Chungfu, explained the case to him, and invited him to join me in representing Qi. I told him we would leave the next day. . . .

Li is a man of few words. He was born in the countryside, dropped out of school to work, and was self-taught. I knew his experience would give him a more unique, deeper, and clearer understanding of social injustice than what I had. Without hesitation, he accepted my invitation. . . .

On August 21, 2007, Li and I left Beijing to go to Jinan to meet with Qi’s wife, to have her sign the authorization documents that would grant us power of attorney. . . .

[On August 23,] the first time we met with Qi, we hardly discussed the “facts of the crime” because there were none. Though there was one detail that was etched intomy memory.

“After finding out I had been arrested, the Heze Municipal Party Committee Secretary, a Mr. Chen, sent the Tengzhou Municipal Party Committee a telegram thanking and congratulating the Tengzhou police for catching me!” Qi recounted what he had heard while in the detention center. . . .

“Why?” I asked, baffled and skeptical.

“It’s no surprise. I’ve published articles on the brutal and illegal evictions and demolitions in Heze for Nanfeng Chuang (南风窗) and Reporters’ Notes (记者观察), including ‘Heze: The Birthplace of Peonies and the Landless Flower Growers’ (菏泽:牡丹之乡的失地花农) and ‘Heze Officials: Where Don’t People Die during Demolitions?’ These offended Heze’s government officials.”

“Have you offended officials anywhere else?” I asked.


Qi Chonghai reports on the Dongying shipwreck for the China Work Safety News. Photo courtesy of Qi’s lawyer Wang Quanzhang.

“Many places! And quite a few propaganda departments of local Party committees and public security bureaus as well.” Qi knew very clearly the real reason why he was being framed in an act of retaliation: exposing government flaws.

Qi began offending officials in Tengzhou in early April 2007, when a patrol car of the Tengzhou Municipal Bureau of City Administration struck and killed a street vendor who “refused to comply.” Qi traveled from Jinan and to Tengzhou to investigate, but the Tengzhou Municipal Bureau of City Administration declined to be interviewed. After Qi returned to Jinan, Tengzhou officials sent Zhao Yuexiang, the chief of the news section of the municipal Party committee’s propaganda Department, Liang Xingqi, the deputy director of the Municipal Bureau of City Administration, and other officials to Jinan to meet with Qi and offer him money to withdraw the story. After Qi declined their offer, the Tengzhou officials left in humiliation and anger.

This was the event that was later used by the Tengzhou Public Security Bureau as evidence supporting its accusation that Qi engaged in extortion and blackmail. It was also used by Tengzhou’s police as grounds for assuming geographical jurisdiction, which allowed them to bring Qi from Jinan to be prosecuted in Tengzhou on suspicion of “economic problems.” Zhao Yuexiang, Liang Xingqi, and other officials, who had traveled to Jinan to ask Qi to drop his article, even became “witnesses” against Qi, accusing him of extortion!

It was also on this trip to Tengzhou to investigate the death of the street vendor that the luxurious and ostentatious office building and square of the Tengzhou municipal government captured Qi’s attention and he took photographs of them. . . .

On June 18, 2008, Officers Xu Feng and Wang Jun and others from the Tengzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau visited Qi at his office in the Shandong Provincial Police Training College in Jinan. They wanted him to “clearly explain” the pictures of the government building and the information about them circulating on overseas websites. Seeing that the officials did not have a subpoena, Qi refused to comply. A scuffle followed. Later, officers from the police substation in Qi’s residential district of Wendong came to the scene, but left after the fax of a subpoena that the Tengzhou officers requested their superiors to send did not arrive. . . .

On June 25, 2007, officers from the Tengzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau’s Public Information Network Security Unit, National Security Unit, and Criminal Investigation Unit took Qi fromhis home in Jinan, and detained himat the Tengzhou Municipal Detention Center. . . .

After pictures of the corrupt Tengzhou government building appeared online, Qi was quickly taken from Jinan and transferred to Tengzhou on suspicion of “economic problems.” The Tengzhou police then attacked Qi’s credential as a journalist, publicly stating that Qi was under suspicion of posing as a reporter to engage in fraud. However, the China Work Safety News, Fazhi Ribao, and others news organizations quickly verified Qi’s distinguished career in journalism and his indisputable credential as a reporter. Facing formidable public outcry on the Internet, the Tengzhou police changed their story once again—stating that Qi was suspected of using his credential as a reporter for “extortion and blackmail.” . . .

From the day he was locked up in the detention center, Qi was subjected to intimidation, torment, and beatings by the police and by inmates instigated by the police. At every interrogation, Qi would suffer severe beating when the police failed to obtain the confession they desired or when Qi refuted the “facts of the crime” fabricated by the police.

On August 13, 2007, during an interrogation, Qi retracted his confession, pointing out that the prior statement of guilt had been extorted from him under torture. Upon hearing this, Zhao Zhongyu, the deputy head of the criminal investigation unit, became enraged and started striking Qi. Zhao slapped Qi 16 times consecutively across the face until he fell to the ground unconscious. Then, he splashed a big bucket of cold water on Qi to wake him up. “I’ll beat you like I beat a chick! If I kill you, we can say you committed suicide!” Zhao viciously threatened Qi to prevent him from telling anyone about the beating. It was only during my second meeting with Qi, on September 27, 2007, that he summoned the courage to tell me what he had suffered. Despite my encouragement and support, Qi remained extremely frightened and terrified. He feared that speaking up could result in harsher retaliations.. . .

September 1, 2007 was a rainy day. Qi was locked up in Cell 14 in the Tengzhou Municipal Detention Center. The “cell-leader” (a police-appointed leader among detainees) ordered Qi to mop the floor. Because the rainwater had flooded in, the cell-leader reprimanded Qi for doing a poor job. At the suggestion of the police, the cell-leader led other detainees to beat up Qi—he was left near dead and covered in wounds. . . .

On May 13, 2008, during his trial at the Tengzhou Municipal Court, Qi was also badly beaten by the bailiffs. . . .

On the day of the trial—which lasted from 9 a.m. until recess at noon—Qi, in the defendant’s seat, turned toward his crying wife whom he had not seen in a year trying to comfort her. The bailiffs immediately stopped himby force. Several bailiffs rushed up and dragged Qi from his seat and out of the courtroom. Then came the sounds of the officers’ fists and Qi’s screams and cries. The local officials and police were afraid that Qi would see that Zhao Yuexiang, Liu Shuju, and other officials from the propaganda department of the Tengzhou Municipal Party Committee were sitting in the public gallery, who would later be questioned as prosecution “witnesses.” When the court session resumed at 12:30 p.m., I made a formal inquiry about Qi’s beating. Qi described to the court how he was dragged out of court by force and violently beaten: “Two bailiffs pushed me to the floor, rammed my head on the ground six times! I can’t bear the pain in my head. I don’t know whether I can continue with the trial this afternoon. The two bailiffs who beat me, their badge numbers were 375366 and 375365 . . . .”

It is this kind of pervasive open violence during investigation and trial that leaves no option for any citizen or individual standing trial but to “confess” to the “facts of the crime”—regardless of whether the facts were fabricated or relevant to his or her case. Indeed, even if the supposedly murdered individual is found alive, or the real murderer surfaces, it would not make a difference [in the outcome of a trial]. It was also under this type of cruel treatment that Qi had no choice but to confess to all of the “facts of the crime.”

According to the indictment from the Tengzhou Municipal Procuratorate Office, between December 2005 and May 2007, Qi blackmailed and extorted various Party and government departments and agencies in Shandong with the threat of publishing negative articles. These departments and agencies included the Feicheng Municipal Public Security Bureau, Yuncheng County Public Security Bureau, the Propaganda Departments of the Jiyang County and Yutai County Party Committees, the Xintai Municipal Government, the Taiyue District Government in Tai’an, and the Bureau of City Administration and Party Propaganda Department of Tengzhou.

These charges of “extortion and blackmail” set a peculiar precedent in China’s judicial history—by using brazen gangster logic to negate and subvert the fundamental principles of free expression and public scrutiny. Not one of the alleged victims of “extortion and blackmail” has ever been an ordinary citizen, private party or organization. Rather, the victims have been, without exception, state institutions. These included the most powerful institutions in the state machinery, such as public security bureaus, governments, and Party committee propaganda departments (which are not legal institutions per se, but in fact hold extraordinary power). Further, they openly characterize “reporters’ negative reporting” as blackmail.

The fundamental role of public scrutiny is to supervise government power and officials. The fundamental characteristic of free speech is precisely the freedom to criticize the government and public power. . . . After the exposé, Tengzhou officials, in an attempt to control public opinion and cover up their misconduct, went to the Tengzhou police claiming to be victims of extortion and blackmail when in fact there was no extortion and blackmail. And through the propaganda departments of Party committees in various locations, officials actively collected and circulated various articles by Qi that scrutinized the government. They then colluded to produce false statements and fabricate evidence against Qi, in order to complete their malicious framing of Qi—accusing him of extortion using negative coverage.

Even more, many propaganda department officials, police officers, and government officials— who embezzled public funds by reporting bogus expenses in bribes to reporters—lied and claimed that they gave public funds to Qi, in order to accuse Qi of extortion. There was no physical evidence in the form of bank records of payments, audio or visual recordings, or handwriting to show that Qi accepted any money. Rather, all the evidence against Qi was based on the dictated oral testimonies by officials, and none of these officials were cross-examined by defense counsel in court. . . .

In a more direct and concrete way, the trial process itself exposed the absurdity and injustice of this case.

When the trial began at 9 a.m., on May 13, 2008, He Yanjie, a colleague of Qi’s, was named by another colleague as Qi’s accomplice in extortion and blackmail. From the date of their arrest on June 26, 2007, to the start of the trial, the two defendants had been detained far longer than the maximum six-month detention period allowed under the Criminal Procedure Law. The defense counsel had repeatedly submitted requests to the investigation, procuratorial, and trial departments separately to end these coercive measures against the defendants in accordance with the law. These requests, however, were all rejected. On the morning of the hearing, [co-counsel] Li Chunfu, Qi’s wife Jiao Xia, and I arrived at the Tengzhou courthouse half an hour early. The local government had deployed hundreds of police officers to guard the streets around the court, the main gates of the court, the courtyard and security check line, the corridor leading to the courtroom, and the courtroom. Officials from the Tengzhou Party Committee and Municipal Government, Political and Legal Affairs Committee, Propaganda Department, Public Security Bureau, and Bureau of Justice were also present at the hearing. . . . Only one family member of Qi was allowed into the courtroom; all citizens, including news reporters, were shut out. Oddly, some defense witnesses who were supposed to be examined by defense counsel in court were actually sitting in the public gallery, refusing to be examined. The court even arbitrarily admitted the “written testimonies” that the police had provided.

Among the many citizens and reporters trying to enter the public gallery, I still remember a woman in her forties, called Yang Shanhong (杨善红). She came to Tengzhou from Linyi the day before in the hope of getting into the courtroom to catch a glimpse of Qi. When no one was allowed in, she wept outside the courtroom. “I originally thought that after being released [from prison] I could go to Jinan to see Mr. Qi—to sincerely thank him for all his help to me!” She told me how much she supported Qi. She went on to say, “I always worried that someone would retaliate against him. I never thought that my worries would come true!” . . .

At 9 a.m., the trial began. . . .

The prosecutor read the charges in the indictment: between December 2005 and May 2007, Qi and his accomplice, He Yanjie, threatened to publish negative stories and demanded money from several government departments, including the Feicheng Municipal Public Security Bureau, Yuncheng County Public Security Bureau, the Propaganda Departments of the Jiyang County and Yutai County Party Committees, the Xintai Municipal Government, the Taiyue District Government in Tai’an, and the Bureau of City Administration and Party Propaganda Department of Tengzhou. Their actions constituted extortion and blackmail.

The defendants Qi and He Yanjie denied all the charges. They stressed that this was a deliberate attempt to crudely suppress the normal supervisory role of the press and to harm the reporters. The facts involved in the case were very simple and straightforward.

In late April 2007, there was a major traffic accident in Feicheng. In handling the incident, the traffic police abused the law for personal gain. Qi, having heard of the incident, went to investigate and gather information. Fearing an exposé of the incident would lead to investigation into their responsibility, the leaders of the Feicheng Municipal Public Security Bureau offered Qi money and asked him to end his information gathering and investigation. Qi sternly refused. He finished his investigation and returned to Jinan. At this time, the leaders of the Feicheng Municipal Public Security Bureau found out that Qi had worked at the Shandong bureau of the Renmin Gong’an Bao, which was friendly with the propaganda section of the traffic squad at the Shandong Provincial Public Security Department and sent someone there to “tackle the problem.” Ultimately, they asked the Shandong Provincial Public Security Department’s propaganda section chief, Zhao Jinhu, and the head of the political department to “mediate.” Qi, unable to disregard his former colleagues, finally agreed to drop the story on the unjust handling of the traffic accident. At the trial, the Feicheng officials presented the expenses they used to travel to the Shandong Provincial Department of Public Security to ask officials there to “mediate” as proof of the extortion and blackmail committed by Qi.

In an emotional outpouring at trial, Qi described how he was once forced to accept 2,000 yuan ($312) “After collecting information on a negative story, forget about getting away. I would face threats of bodily harm even in attempting to refuse bribes,” he said.

In January 2007, a terrible incident occurred—a person was beaten to death by on-duty officials from the Jiyang County Municipal Bureau of City Administration. After completing their investigation, Qi and his colleague wrote a report entitled “Ruthless City Administration Officials in Shandong Beat Shop Owner to Death” (山东蛮狠城管打死店主). At this point, three officials from the Jiyang County Propaganda Department and from the county government went with money to visit Qi in his residence and office in Jinan, to ask him not to publish the report. They were forcefully rejected. The Jiyang County officials swore to fight Qi to the end. They asked the Vice Director of Daily Affairs at the Propaganda Department of the Jinan Municipal Party Committee, Ling Andong, to personally intervene. Ling sternly cautioned Qi: “You must accept the money, if not, you will be in trouble! If you don’t even dare to accept this little bit of money, how do you expect to get on in Jinan?!” He threw down two envelopes and left. There were 2,000 yuan in the envelopes, offered as travel expenses that Qi and his colleague incurred on their reporting trip to Jiyang County. Qi was unsuccessful in multiple attempts to return the 2,000 yuan.

“At that time, I had this feeling that if I didn’t take their money, I would be killed! Even if it was only 2,000 yuan,” Qi said. In recent years, many reporters have gotten beaten up and maimed after refusing gifts or hush money from corrupt officials and for speaking out over injustices and scrutinizing the government. . . .

A little over a half an hour [after the court adjourned], . . . the presiding judge, along with the sitting judge, and the prosecutor, together entered the courtroom. . . .

Qi was convicted of “extortion and blackmail” and sentenced to four years in prison. For He Yanjie, two years in prison. . . .

“Do you think that is a heavy sentence? Are you planning to appeal?” On the day the verdict was pronounced, this was the question most reporters asked me. There was no evidence to support a crime. Thus, the question should not be whether the four-year sentence was heavy or light. As the defense lawyer, I firmly believed we should appeal.

On May 26, 2008, Li Chunfu and I again went to the Tengzhou Municipal Detention Center and the Tengzhou Municipal Court. This was our seventh meeting with Qi since his arrest. We told Qi we were not optimistic in overturning the trial verdict on appeal. If we did not appeal, he would be transferred immediately from the detention center to a prison to serve his sentence. And the conditions in the detention center were probably worse than in prison. The final decision on whether to appeal rested with Qi himself. As lawyers, we could only offer our suggestion to appeal for him to consider. . . .

However, Qi’s resolve was extraordinarily firm; he decided to appeal. . . .

The court of second instance was the Zaozhuang Municipal Intermediate People’s Court of Shandong Province. The presiding judge for the case was Gao Chunyan—a female judge who was approachable and willing to interact with counsel. I was hoping that Qi’s appeal would be heard in open court rather than behind closed doors through written submissions. We emphasized that many problems existed with the trial of first instance, including: confessions obtained through torture, contradictory and false evidence, lack of witness cross-examination, lack of court jurisdiction, and violations of procedural rules during the investigation. Also, key elements of the case—freedom of the press, free speech, and retaliation for exposing the Tengzhou municipal government’s corruption—were not discussed. . . .

On July 14, 2008, I arrived in Zaozhuang City, the location of the Zaozhuang Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. I submitted a written application requesting a public hearing along with the reasons for my request. That afternoon, I left Zaozhuang and went to the Tengzhou Municipal Detention Center. I met with Qi to discuss and exchange ideas about my arguments on appeal. I also went to see how he was faring in the detention center. . . .

The next day, I returned to the Zaozhuang Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. . . . Gao Chunyan, the presiding judge, told me that she had carefully read the trial transcript and my defense statement. She approved of our work and the defense’s arguments, but these were only her personal views. . . .

Ten days later, I received a call from the judge. From the sound of her voice, I had the feeling that she had no choice but to inform me of an outcome that she personally did not wish to see: “The trial verdict will be upheld. Thank you for the articles you recommended. I read them all carefully.” On July 28, 2008, I received the ruling from Zaozhuang Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. The appeal was overruled and the original verdict upheld.

On August 8, 2008, the day the Beijing Olympics began, Qi was transferred from the Tengzhou Municipal Detention Center to the Tengzhou Prison to serve his sentence.

At the end of 2008, the luxurious Tengzhou municipal government building that Qi’s report had exposed was auctioned off.

One day in September 2009, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Qi in prison. I was extremely sad after listening to his account of all kinds of abuses and difficulties he had suffered in prison. I really wanted to visit him in prison. Perhaps this was one of his wishes in making this call.

However, he likely did not know that, at the time, I and many of my colleagues had been forced to stop working as lawyers: the government authorities had canceled or revoked our licenses, or did not pass us in the annual license inspection. At that time, I had neither the legal status nor the reason to see him in prison. Since then, I have been unable to fulfill my wish to personally visit him in prison.

Today, the 18th World Press Freedom Day, I wrote this article to commemorate and to console reporter Qi Chonghuai, who remains in prison. May he soon be free!

Translator’s Note

1. This is a reference to the case of Li Zhuang (李庄), a Beijing lawyer tried and convicted of “perjury” by a Chongqing court and sentenced to one and a half years of imprisonment. In April 2011, two months before his scheduled release, Li was tried again on the basis of what the prosecution claimed to be newly discovered crimes that were not known during the first trial. The new trial prompted an uproar among legal professionals, who perceived it to be a political act to keep Li in prison. The prosecution dropped the case a few days after the new trial. ^

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