BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese journalist has been sentenced to 16 years in prison for taking bribes to help cover up a coal mine disaster just before the Beijing Olympics, his lawyer said Wednesday. More than 50 local officials and journalists also face charges.
Mine officials in the northern province of Hebei are accused of moving dead bodies, destroying evidence and paying journalists 2.6 million yuan ($380,000) not to report on the July 2008 explosion in which 34 miners and a rescue worker were killed, state-run media have reported. The story was kept quiet for three months.
It’s fairly common for officials to pay such bribes to keep higher ranking leaders from finding out about disasters and to avoid being fired or handed demerits. The payoffs sometimes take the form of blackmail, with reporters threatening to reveal accidents unless they are paid off. The payments often are disguised as advertising buys or subscription fees.
Officials may have had even more reason to keep the Hebei accident silent because it struck just three weeks before the Beijing Olympic Games in the midst of a national safety campaign, when the central government was bent on painting only the most positive picture of China to the world.
Li Junqi is thought to be the first of 10 journalists sentenced in the scandal. At least 48 officials, including policemen, work safety officers and the head of the county government, also face charges of paying or taking bribes, the official China Daily has reported, citing the results of an investigation ordered by the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
Li’s lawyer said Wednesday that the Zhangjiakou Intermediate People’s Court upheld a lower court’s verdict from last week that said Li, the Hebei bureau chief of Farmers’ Daily, asked the county government for 200,000 yuan ($29,000) for not reporting the mine accident.
The Beijing-based lawyer, Zhou Ze, said Li took the money but that it wasn’t a bribe.
“The money Li took didn’t go into his own bank account but into the paper’s account. So it’s ridiculous for the judge to call it hush money,” Zhou told The Associated Press.
Zhou said the Zhangjiakou Intermediate People’s Court rejected his application to defend Li during his appeal and “ruthlessly deprived him of his defense rights.”
Officials answering telephones at the court had no comment on the case.
Zhou said he had no information about the other journalists’ cases.
Punishments for bribery in China range from suspended prison terms to the death sentence.
Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.