- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

SHANGHAI — A journalist serving a 13-year jail term for reporting about a bogus irrigation project has been released five years early to unusually vocal official acclaim for his determination to fight corruption.

Gao Qinrong, previously an investigative journalist for a state-run newspaper in northern China’s Shanxi province, was imprisoned in 1998 and released earlier this month, according to media activists and state press reports.

Such developments rarely win a mention in China’s state-controlled press, given the political sensitivities over Beijing’s violations of freedom of press and other civil liberties.

Yet, Mr. Gao’s case is being touted as evidence of the country’s willingness to empower the press to help fight corruption.

“That the local reporter Gao Qinrong was framed and imprisoned after revealing the frightful spectacle of local corruption is a highly irregular situation,” the state-run newspaper Southern Weekend said in a commentary accompanying a lengthy interview with Mr. Gao after his release.

“Why should media today have to face this problem or that problem when reporting on the problem of corruption?” it stated. Mr. Gao, 51, was not immediately available for comment yesterday.

In the interview, he insisted he was right in publishing the reports that resulted in his imprisonment.

“To be a journalist, you have to speak for the people,” Mr. Gao told Southern Weekend. “If I hadn’t published that report, it would be as if the case never happened. We can’t all be yes-men. If we are, what hope is there for our country?

“Corruption must be exposed,” he said.

The authorities’ motives in highlighting Mr. Gao’s case are not clear.

Mr. Gao drew national attention with a 1998 report in the Shanxi Youth Daily that a $35 million irrigation project in Yuncheng, a city in northern China, was a scam meant to boost the careers of local officials. It was published in the Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily and followed on state-run television.

Months later, Mr. Gao was arrested by Yuncheng officials on charges of bribery and fraud, among others, and sentenced after a brief trial to 13 years in prison.

His release comes as China’s top leaders are orchestrating simultaneous corruption crackdowns in several major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

The scandals appear to be aimed at appeasing public anger over corruption while shoring up the power base of President Hu Jintao ahead of an important party congress next year.

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