UK & World News

  • 23 October 2013, 10:58

China Paper's Plea For Release Of Reporter

A Chinese newspaper has used its entire front page to call for the release of one of its journalists in an extremely rare case of open defiance against the authorities.

The New Express newspaper, which is based in the southern city of Guangzhou, published a demand for the release of reporter Chen Yongzhou under the headline Please Release Him.

Mr Chen was arrested in Guangzhou on Saturday. He had been asked to report to a local police station to answer some questions relating to a series of articles he had written alleging corruption at a construction company.

The front page article reads: "Dear Readers, our reporter Chen Yongzhou reported on financial problems at Zoomlion and was taken into custody by the Changsha police outside their jurisdiction, accused of damaging business prestige. Over this matter, we must speak out."

Between September last year and June this year, Mr Chen had written a series of exposes about alleged financial wrongdoing at Zoomlion, a heavy industry construction firm.

His articles alleged that the company, which is registered on both the Hong Kong and Shenzhen stock exchanges (SZSE: 000157, SEHK: 1157), had exaggerated its profits and manipulated the market.

Mr Chen and his wife attended the local police station voluntarily. He was then arrested, bundled into a police van and taken to the city of Changsha in the neighbouring province. Changsha is where Zoomlion has its headquarters.

In China, all newspapers and TV news outlets are state-run. They must adhere to the guidance of the Communist Party and are only permitted to report stories which are cleared by their government-employed editors.

However, in this rare case, the staff at the New Express appear to have defied these restrictions. It is not clear whether its senior editors had sanctioned the story.

There has been no comment from the local government authorities in either Guangzhou or Changsha. However the Changsha police has issued a brief statement confirming the arrest.

"New Express reporter Chen [Yongzhou] was legally detained on October 19 on criminal charges of damaging commercial reputation. The case is now under further investigation." the police statement read.

The decision by the newspaper to publish their defiant front page plea has prompted an overwhelming reaction on China's social networking forums.

"How much money did Zoomlion pay you?" one user wrote in a message directed at the local police.

"Every day watching the news makes me feel so sad being a Chinese," wrote another.

"We don't have privacy, freedom, can't express criticism. Rich people commit crimes like blinking their eyes; but if poor people upset the rich, it doesn't matter if they've committed crimes or not, they would be locked up."

In January, the staff of another Guangzhou newspaper, The Southern Weekly, went on strike in response to a decision to change an editorial they had written which criticised the Communist Party.

Guangzhou, in Guangdong province, is widely seen as the most liberal and progressive part of an otherwise heavily politically controlled and censored country.

Questioning authority, either by the media or at an individual level, is rare and risky, especially at a time when the central government has shown its commitment to crack down on dissent.

In a recent speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a "strong army to seize the ground of new media".

Under a new law, introduced last month, anyone who uses Chinese online social networks to "send out false information that is defamatory or harms the national interest" could face three years in jail.

If an offending online post is seen more than 5,000 times or gets more than 500 re-posts, the source of the post faces prosecution.

In the city of Shanghai alone, police figures published in September show that 170 people have been arrested for speaking out against the authorities this year.

"In this neverending cat-and-mouse game between the government and 'netizens' for real freedom of expression on China's internet, the authorities are setting new traps," Ms Richardson from Human Rights Watch said.

"At stake is one of the few mechanisms people in China have to hold authorities to account."