It could have been me

For sending an email exposing Chinese government spin, Shi Tao is in the third year of a ten-year pr

I use webmail all the time, receiving something like 300 emails a day, sending probably 30 a day. Running a popular political gossip site means that the content of the emails often contains information which, if not an actual state secret, is something that people in the government would rather was not revealed. On a good day my website annoys Downing Street and the party spin machines. Annoys them immensely.

It goes without saying that I don't expect my email service provider to hand over the contents of my emails and the IP address revealing my geographic location to the authorities. In fact, without a second thought, implicitly, I rely on my email provider to protect the confidentiality of my sources and myself.

At 39, Shi Tao is a couple of years younger than me. He is three years into a ten-year prison sentence, after being arrested in 2004 in connection with an email sent from his Yahoo! email account. This email, to a Chinese pro-democracy website based in the United States, contained an article revealing the Chinese government's instructions to Chinese journalists on how to spin the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Government spin - just the sort of thing I love exposing.

Yahoo! gave his account information to the Chinese authorities, which helped them to identify Shi and led to his arrest on charges of "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities". "State secrets" are only vaguely defined in Chinese law: whether something constitutes a "state secret" can be an arbitrary and politically motivated decision, enabling the Chinese authorities to detain those peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Yahoo! handed over information that was used as evidence during the trial which resulted in Shi's imprisonment. Just before the trial, Shi's defence lawyer, Guo Guoting, an experienced human rights lawyer, had his licence to practise law suspended. Not surprisingly, Guo considered this to be an attempt by the authorities to prevent him from defending Shi.

Yahoo! accepts that the case "raises profound and troubling questions about basic human rights", but distances itself from responsibility, saying it was legally obliged to comply with the demand for information. Amnesty International argues that Yahoo!'s actions were not justifiable: companies should respect human rights wherever they operate.

According to Amnesty, Shi has been doing forced labour in Chishan Prison even as the authorities are extending the punishment to his family. Shi's wife was questioned daily by Public Security Bureau officials and was persistently pressured by her work unit to divorce him, which she eventually did. His brother and uncle have also been under surveillance and harassed at home and at work; and his mother, Gao Qinsheng, is closely monitored and harassed as she continues to petition for her son's release.

Gao is a brave woman: two months ago she accepted on his behalf from the World Association of Newspapers the award of the 2007 Golden Pen of Freedom. With tears in her eyes, she waved her fist at the Chinese state and raged against her son's shackles.

Amnesty International considers Shi Tao to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

I worked in Hong Kong at one time, and if I had been writing at the time, the same could have happened to me. The Chinese already block my website.

Guido Fawkes runs a British political blog

To take action on behalf of Shi Tao, go to or text the word "FREEDOM", together with your name and email address, to 64118

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time