01/18/2008, 00.00
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Farmer gets two years in labour camp for talking to foreign journalists about land seizures

As a result of talking to journalists, a farmer is charged with “endangering state security.” The pre-Olympic warning is clear: Beijing might guarantee freedom of the press to foreign journalists but it will deny its own people freedom of expression.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A peasant who tried to recover seized farmland in Heilongjiang province was sentenced to two years in a labour camp yesterday for talking to foreign journalists. The court motivated its decision by saying that his action had endangered state security.

Yu Changwu, 52, was convicted without trial after a month in detention. Yu and other farmers were guilty for filing a suit against the local government for seizing 966 hectares (2,400 acres) of land owned by some 900 local villagers. At a village meeting Yu had led the charge on behalf of the villagers. Another farmer who had backed him was arrested a week ago. 

Under Chinese law Yu’s sentence to “re-education through labour” is a minor offence; otherwise he would be in prison. However, the charge of endangering the security of the state by talking to foreign journalists is serious one.

The sentence was obviously meant as a warning to farmers not to speak about their problems with foreign media at the present time in view of the upcoming Olympics.

Under new media rules adopted months ago for the Olympic Games foreign journalists are free to travel and interview anyone from 1 January to 1 October 2008.

However, local media are banned from publishing “sensitive” news. Under Chinese media rules local reporters are also not allowed to pass stories to their foreign colleagues. Demonstrations, complaints about corruption, unrest are among the news items off limits.

Yu’s sentence shows that whilst China might have granted foreign journalists some freedom, it is bent on not guaranteeing any freedom of expression to its own population.

For China’s government half of all social protests in the country are caused by disputes over land. According to the land department, land was unlawfully seized in more than 131,000 cases covering about 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres), 76 per cent more than in 2005.

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