Yahoo Defends Itself Over China Accusations

By John Ruwitch

Internet giant Yahoo Inc. defended itself on Thursday against accusations that it supplied data to Chinese authorities which led to the imprisonment of a journalist, saying it has to abide local laws.

Press watchdogs accused Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. of providing details about e-mail communications that helped identify, and were used as evidence against, Shi Tao, who was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets abroad.

"Just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based," Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said in a statement e-mailed to Reuters by the firm's Hong Kong arm.

Yahoo declined to confirm or deny that it furnished the Chinese government with the information.

The French group Reporters Without Borders said Shi, a former news editor for the Contemporary Business News in Hunan province, was convicted for e-mailing foreign-based Web sites the text of an internal message to journalists about dangers around the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2004.

China broadly defines as a state secret anything that affects the security and interests of the state, but the limits are vague and can include political news. Rights groups say the laws are arbitrary enough to be manipulated for political purposes.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in February that China had the most journalists in prison, 42, of any country for the sixth year in a row.

Among those in detention are New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, arrested on charges of leaking state secrets to foreigners, and Hong Kong-based reporter Ching Cheong of the Singapore Straits Times, who China suspects of spying for Taiwan.

Shi's conviction sent shockwaves through the Chinese journalist community because many felt his sentence was excessive and might have been heavy to serve as a warning.

The Committee to Protect Journalists decried what it called China's "chokehold" on the Internet.

"We categorically condemn the outrageous prosecution of Shi Tao," Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

"We call on the Chinese government and Yahoo to provide a full explanation of the circumstances that led the company to provide account holder information,"

In 2002, Yahoo was among the many firms to voluntarily sign the "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry," seen by critics as a promise of self-censorship.

Reporters Without Borders asked how far Yahoo would go.

"Does the fact that this corporation operates under Chinese law free it from all ethical considerations? How far will it go to please Beijing?" it said in a statement.

"It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government's abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate."

(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in San Francisco)

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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