Imprisoned for Peaceful Expression
In April 2004, the Chinese journalist Shi Tao used his Yahoo! email account to send a message to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website.
In his email, he summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Police arrested him in November 2004, charging him with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.”
Shi Tao was sentenced in April 2005 to 10 years’ imprisonment and two years’ subsequent deprivation of his political rights. According to the court verdict, part of the evidence for the case was account holder information supplied by Yahoo!. Spokespersons for Yahoo! claimed the company was simply following local laws.
When Shi Tao was first detained, the authorities harassed his family. His wife underwent daily questioning by public security bureau officials and was persistently pressured by her work unit to divorce him, which she eventually did. Shi Tao’s mother, uncle and brother were also put under surveillance and harassed both at work and at home.
Shi Tao was first held in Chishan prison in Hunan province where he was forced to work polishing gemstones, and was reported to be suffering from respiratory problems and skin inflammation caused by the dust. In May 2010, he was transferred to Yinchuan prison in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and was not forced to work.
Good news finally came on August 23, 2013, when Shi Tao was released after more than eight years in prison.
Shi Tao told Amnesty International that since being freed, his life is getting back to normal, and he expressed his thanks to Amnesty supporters: “I am sincerely grateful to your sustained support and attention to my mother and me over these years. The support and encouragement of friends from around the world have helped my mother and me through the difficult and lonely times.”
Prior to his release, Amnesty International considered Shi Tao to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, a right protected in international law and the Chinese constitution.
China operates an extensive Internet censorship policy which includes filtering specific key words and politically sensitive subjects, blocking specific internet search results, as well as the complete blocking of a large number of websites considered politically sensitive by the authorities. A number of human rights websites, such as Amnesty International’s own website are blocked in China.
Many Internet companies operating in China have accepted the government’s censorship requirements. Amnesty International has urged such companies including Yahoo! to commit to honoring the freedom of expression provisions in the Chinese Constitution and to be transparent about the filtering processes used in China and the agreements between the companies and the Chinese government with implications for censorship and the suppression of dissent.
In 2007, when Yahoo co-founder, Jerry Yang, was brought before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington because of the company’s role in turning over customer information to the Chinese State Security Bureau, he expressed great remorse for the company’s actions. He even offered an apology to Shi Tao’s mother who was in attendance. But soon after, the company only took minor steps to make amends for their actions, and stopped short of taking any decisive measures that would send a clear message to Chinese authorities that censorship would not be tolerated. Since then, the web portal of Yahoo China was closed in late 2013. Yahoo should have done more to advocate for online freedom of expression while it had operations in China.