China has freed a Hong Kong-based reporter for a Singaporean newspaper. The journalist served about half of a five year jail sentence. He had been accused of spying for Taiwan. As VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing, the release comes just before the Lunar New Year holiday, the most important Chinese celebration.
Word of Ching Cheong's release was big news in Hong Kong, where he had been based as a reporter for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper.
Fan Ho Tsai, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, said his organization is happy to see that the reporter is out of prison.
"But we have to reiterate that our standpoint is that we believe that Ching Cheong is innocent and that we are very disappointed that he has been incarcerated for over 1,000 days before released," said Fan.
At the regular foreign ministry briefing in Beijing, spokesman Liu Jianchao said he has no knowledge of the specific case. But several times, he emphasized his confidence that Chinese authorities handled it legally.
"I was saying I'm not quite clear about the actual situation of the case, but I mean that the judicial organs of China will deal with this in accordance with law," he said.
Ching Cheong was the chief China correspondent for The Straits Times when he was arrested in Guangzhou, China in April 2005. The Chinese government accused him of selling state secrets to Taiwan. He is the first Hong Kong journalist to have been charged with spying since the territory was returned to mainland China in 1997.
Warren Fernandez, deputy editor of The Straits Times, says he is glad Ching is out of jail earlier than the five years he was sentenced. Fernandez says the paper maintains Ching's innocence and expects he will remain on staff.
"He is still a full-fledged member of our staff, we had him as a staff member all this while, providing his family with financial and legal support," said Ferenandez. "So, once we get a chance to talk with him, we will discuss his future plans."
Francis Moriarity, press freedom chairman of Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club, describes the Chinese media situation as "one step forward, one step backward."
"On one hand, you see some things opening up a bit, and you see promises from the Chinese government," said Moriarity. "At the same time, you see crackdown, you see denial, you see bloggers being put in jail, you see the arrest of Hu Jia."
On the same day Ching Cheong returned to Hong Kong, Chinese authorities in the eastern city of Hangzhou sentenced dissident writer Lu Gengsong to four years in prison on subversion charges. Officials last week formally leveled the same charge against AIDS activist and jailed dissident writer Hu Jia, who was detained at the end of last year and is now awaiting a sentence.