International PEN is circulating fthe following report by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) of the early release of Chinese journalist Ching Cheong. PEN welcomes his early release and thanks all who campaigned on his behalf.

Background Information

Reporters Without Borders is relieved that Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong, a correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times, was freed on parole on February 5, 2008, from a prison in the southern city of Guangzhou where he was serving a five-year sentence on a spying charge. He returned to Hong Kong on February 5. Arrested on April 22, 2005, he had just over two years of his sentence left to serve.

"Ching should never have been arrested and imprisoned," Reporters Without Borders said. "His release is very welcome, especially as it will allow him to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his family, but he is still not completely free. The Chinese government should continue down this road by releasing, before the start of the Olympic Games, all of the 32 journalists and 51 cyberdissidents who are currently held." The press-freedom organization added: "We pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts made by Ching's family, his friends the Ching Cheong Concern Group, and the journalistic community in Hong Kong, who always defended his innocence in the face of the Chinese government's unjust accusations."

Ching's release must not divert attention from the plight of human-rights activist Hu Jia, who has been held since December 27, 2007, on a charge of "inciting subversion of state authority," or from the four-year prison sentence passed down on February 4 to writer Lu Gengsong in the eastern city of Hangzhou on the same charge.

Li Changqing, the former editor of Fuzhou Daily, was freed on February 2 after completing a three-year sentence for "spreading alarmist reports."

Mak Chai-ming of the Ching Cheong Concern Group told Reporters Without Borders that he was "very happy" about Ching's release and hoped Ching would now be able to explain the circumstances and reasons for his arrest. The Hong Kong Journalists Association said it hoped this kind of arrest would not recur. The management of the Straits Times said it was "delighted by this long-awaited release."

When a Reporters Without Borders representative met with Ching's wife, Mary Lau, in Hong Kong in December 2007, she described his prison conditions: "He is in a cell with 12 other inmates, most of them criminals serving long sentences. There are two factories in the prison. He has to work eight hours a day, with additional hours twice a week, until 9 p.m. He makes police uniforms. The prisoners are not paid."

Lau added: "Ching had a problem with high blood pressure before his arrest, but it flared up only two or three times a year. Now he has it all the time. He is suffering as a result of the military discipline in the prison. He has lost 15 kilos since his arrest. You already know that the first month, when he was held in Beijing, was extremely tough. The way he was treated could be regarded as mental torture." Ching has had heart and stomach problems, and doctors reportedly discovered a duodenal ulcer. He was hospitalized on more than one occasion, but the family was not told until several weeks later.

The holder of a British national overseas passport, Ching was arrested on April 22, 2005, while visiting Guangzhou, and he was sentenced on August 31, 2006, to five years in prison and a fine of 60,000 euros for allegedly spying for Taiwan. The news agency Xinhua published a report claiming the Ching sold business, political, and military information to Taiwanese agents for millions of dollars between 2000 and 2005.

Ching worked from 1974 to 1989 for the Hong Kong-based daily Wen Wei Po, which supports the Beijing government. He resigned after the Tiananmen Square massacre and set up an independent political magazine called Contemporary. He joined the Singapore-based Straits Times in 1996. He has written many articles and books about the Communist Party of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Reporters Without Borders and the Hong Kong Journalists Association launched an appeal for Ching's release on June 2, 2005, which was signed by more than 30,000 people.