English PEN is marking this year’s World Press Freedom Day (3 May) by focussing on the case of Chinese poet and journalist Shi Tao, an Honorary Member of English PEN who is presently serving a 10-year prison sentence on the charge of “revealing state secrets abroad”.
Shi Tao was convicted for an email he sent to an overseas website using a Yahoo! email account after Yahoo! provided the Chinese authorities with his identity. English PEN considers his conviction to be in contravention to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which China became a signatory in 1998) and Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights. Shi Tao is one of the dissident writers whose downfall was the advanced technology used to monitor, survey and track down individuals who are seen to violate Chinese laws by exercising their freedom of expression on the internet.
The year 2004 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of people were reportedly killed. Fearing that the anniversary might trigger fresh pro-reform demonstrations, the Chinese authorities imposed a number of pre-emptive measures including a set of media restrictions designed to keep all discussion of the anniversary out of the public arena.
On 20 April 2004, Shi Tao, who worked as a journalist with the Contemporary Business News (Dangdai Shang Bao) and as head of its news division until May 2004, attended a staff meeting at which an official document containing details of these restrictions was circulated. Shi took notes of the meeting and that evening, from his office, used his personal Yahoo! account to send a summary of the document to the editor of the New York-based Minzhu Luntan (Democracy Forum), a dissident news website that is banned in China, and Minzhu Tongxun (Democracy Communication), an e-mail-based information network. In doing so, he used the pen-name “198964” – the date of the crackdown. Shi’s notes were then distributed through Minzhu Tongxun under this pen name and later posted on other web sites.
The Chinese authorities did not take action against Shi immediately, and he was able to leave Dangdai Shang Bao in May 2004 to embark upon a career as a freelance journalist and writer. However, this new career was cut short when officials from the Changsha security bureau detained him near his home in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province on 24 November 2004 as part of a broader crackdown on writers, journalists and intellectuals. According to court documents, Yahoo! (Hong Kong) Holdings Ltd provided the Chinese authorities with Shi Tao’s identity, information which was then used to prosecute and convict him.
Shi Tao, aged 37, is a widely published poet whose work has been featured in well-respected state-run literary journals with a national readership. While Shi’s work has never been featured in a major anthology, he has published several collections of poetry, including ‘Borders of Heaven’, which was published by Shanxi People’s Publishing House in 2002. Translator Heather Inwood notes that Shi’s poetry appears to be strongly influenced by his involvement in pro-democracy and freedom of speech movements, with many of his poems ‘full of anger, death, blackness, blood and violence.’ He is also known for his social commentaries published on overseas Chinese language media such as Democracy Forum (www.boxun.com).
For the first two years of his detention Shi Tao was held at the high-security Chishan prison in Hunan Province, where he had to do forced labour in a jewelry factory. According to his family, Shi Tao was among the many inmates there to suffer from pneumonia or other respiratory ailments as a result of the production process of cutting and polishing jewels. Shi Tao also has a history of ulcers and heart problems, and there were serious concerns for his health. He was transferred to Deshan prison in June 2007, where he no longer has to do hard labour and his health is said to have improved.
Shi Tao’s poem ‘June’ was written on June 9, 2004, shortly after the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and just three months after Shi Tao sent that fateful email. The poem is the focus of the International PEN Poem Relay, which takes its cue from the Olympic Torch Relay itinerary and seeks to raise awareness about freedom of expression in China through poetry and translation. PEN Centres around the world have translated and recorded “June” in more than 60 languages and, using the internet as its main instrument, the poem is virtually “travelling” around the world, from centre to centre, language to language, adding new translations as it goes and ending in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Go to www.penpoemrelay.org to follow the poem’s progress.
My whole life
Will never get past “June”
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in an abandoned pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the little fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth changes shape, the river falls silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead
9 June 2004. Translated from the Chinese by Chip Rolley of Sidney PEN.
‘Flies and Tigers, Fish and Bicycles – Some Thoughts on Reading
A Harbinger of History (part 10 of 10)’ translated by Roberta Raine can be found at: http://www.hrichina.org/public/highlight/writings/flies.html
‘Pain’ and ‘Heretical Theories’ translated by Sarah Maguire and Heather Inwood can be found at:
Please send appeals:
– Protesting the detention of journalist, poet and dissident writer Shi Tao and calling for his immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
– Expressing concern about Shi Tao’s health, and seeking assurances that he is treated humanely in prison and urging that he receive any necessary medical treatment.
– Urging the Chinese authorities to show their commitment to press freedom in China in the approach to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008 by releasing all writers and journalists detained in China for peacefully exercising their right to free expression.
His Excellency Hu Jintao
President of the People’s Republic of China
Her Excellency Ms. Wu Aiying
Minister of Justice
10 Chaoyangmen Nandajie
Please note that fax numbers are no longer available for the Chinese authorities, so you may wish to ask the diplomatic representative for China in your country to forward your appeals:
Her Excellency Mrs. Fu Ying
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49 – 51 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/bulletins/worldpressfreedomday2008/