The Golden Pen, Yahoo, and the worst country in the world to be a journalist

Flesh against steelTimothy Balding, CEO of the World Association of Newspapers, is no softy. Neither are any of the other 1 600 journalists and news editors from around the world gathered in Cape Town at the 60th World Annual Newspaper Congress.

Yet Balding was not alone in wiping eyes blinded by tears during the presentation of the Golden Pen award.

The Pen is presented annually by WAN to honour the journalist who, against great odds, has done the most to champion the cause of free speech. This year it went to Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist. And today, 4 June, is the 18th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

You may never have heard of him, but Shi is the first casualty in new-media’s complicity in yielding up its users to brutal regimes. Shi is currently serving a ten-year sentence for distributing Chinese state secrets. What secrets?

In 2004, on the 15th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government distributed a warning to all journalists in China telling them how to cover the event so as not to offend the state. Shi sent the message to associates overseas on a Yahoo email account. Yahoo passed that information over to the Chinese police, and Shi was arrested.

At great personal risk, Shi’s mother Gao Qinsheng accepted the award on his behalf. What she said was simple enough. Her passion, her obvious pride and sorrow and anguish, her howl of outrage at the injustice, reached beyond language and culture and resonated in a roomful of journalists and editors.

And we had been skilfully led to this point.

Gavin O’Reilly, president of WAN and head of the Independent Newspaper Group, had led the charge when addressing Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president: “Mr President, this time last year, I stood – in my capacity as President of WAN – in the Kremlin Palace and addressed President Putin on the thorny issue of press freedom in Russia. The year before, it was before President Roh in South Korea. Similarly – and realising that I shan’t be getting a Christmas card from either of them – I still want to speak frankly on the issue of press freedom here in South Africa, and I do so in a constructive and friendly way.”

George Brock, President of the World Editors Forum, who presented the award, followed up: “Even today, most Chinese know nothing about what happened that day. The Communist regime continues to prevent the Chinese media from talking and writing about it openly and honestly and will go to great lengths to silence any such revelations and to severely punish those who make them.”

“How the Chinese authorities traced this e-mail, and discovered that Shi Tao was the author, is a cautionary tale with widespread implications for on-line privacy, and for the way that western communications companies do business in their understandably difficult dealings with repressive regimes,” said Brock.

“While those who do business around the globe must often deal with non-democratic countries, we believe that new media companies that provide more and more of the means for global communications have a special responsibility” he said. “They have an obligation to ensure that the basic human rights of their users will be protected, and they must carefully guard against becoming accomplices in repression.”

Shi’s mother then read a poem from her son:

My whole life

Will never get past “June”

June, when my heart died

When my poetry died

When my lover

Died in a passionate pool of blood

June, the scorching sun burns open my skin

Revealing the true nature of my wound

June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea

Toward another place to hibernate

June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent

Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead

Written 9th June 2004.

7 replies »

  1. “Yahoo passed that information over to the Chinese police, and Shi was arrested.”

    I can’t address this issue of complicity in repression of free speech as achingly well as Shi has in his poem, but my disgust at the willingness of any “business” anywhere to compromise the freedoms of another for the “privilege” of “doing business” with oligarchical dictators knows no bounds. It’s this kind of behavior that emboldens those who would steal freedom even in the country that proclaims itself the role model for all other free countries.

    Commerce in human freedom of expression should feel as anathemic to what is right to every person as commerce in human life should feel. That it doesn’t means there’s work to do in this world yet.

  2. I wonder about solutions here. If an American citizen who is an officer in an American company is complicit in something like this – committing an act that is directly responsible for a repressive government jailing (or worse) an individual who was acting in a way that’s in line with our stated goal of bringing democracy to the world, should there be consequences?

    I mean, take the concept and play it out to its logical conclusion. Say there’s an American data mining firm that has, as its main line of business, a service that gathers information on foreign dissidents and provides that information to the governments of other nations. These dissidents are then rounded up, jailed, tortured, or executed.

    Should the US government legislate against this kind of practice? If the answer is no, then we have a problem. If the answer is yes, then explain to me why Yahoo! DOESN’T have a problem.

    Or am I being thick?

  3. Try to get a typical Millenial college student to grasp the fundamental evil in this.

    You won’t get far.

  4. Yup. Some day that gen will be in charge of everything. By then I hope to be rich enough to own my own independent and well-fortified island nation or dead….

  5. Denny, that scares the heck out of me. It strikes me as a problem of insufficient empathy, an inability to put yourself into someone elses shoes.

  6. It’s not really about empathy. They have a great capacity to identify with the justice of causes they get. My students at SBU seemed to take the general idea that discrimination against gays was inherently bad as a given, and they’re the most volunteer-minded gen we’ve ever had.

    The problem is that they can’t grasp this at a conceptual level. Understanding the principles in theory and formulating a policy opinion is what eludes them. If the imprisoned journalist were somebody they KNEW, then they’d be all over it. But even at that point, they’d be motivated by a sense of emotional attachment, not intellectual understanding.

    It’s a feeling generation, not a thinking one.