Authorities in the western Chinese province of Gansu have detained three journalists on suspicion of "extortion," prompting growing calls for their release.
Zhang Yongsheng, a reporter for the state-run Lanzhou Morning Herald, was detained on Jan. 7 by police in Gansu's Wuwei city and later accused on an official government website of "using his position as a journalist, in the name of public opinion supervision, to repeatedly extort goods and money from others."
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), police initially said he had been arrested for prostitution but later changed the charge to extortion.
On Jan. 8, Wuwei police also detained Luo Huansu, a reporter with the Lanzhou Evening Herald, and Zhang Zhenguo, journalist with the Western Business Herald, the CPJ said in a statement on its website.
They were accused of being Zhang Yongsheng's "accomplices," it said.
Luo was charged with exortion, while Zhang Zhenguo is still under investigation, although both men have been released on bail.
A colleague of Zhang Yongsheng's at the Lanzhou Morning Herald said on Monday he is investigating the case further.
"Everyone is very concerned," the staff member, who declined to be named, told RFA. "If there is an issue with a journalist, then it should be dealt with according to law."
"But everyone feels that the way the police handled this hasn't been very appropriate," the employee said. "First they said it was prostitution, then they changed it to extortion."
"The flaws [in the case] are too obvious."
The employee said Zhang Yongsheng's colleagues are now anxiously awaiting the outcome.
Sources close to the case said widespread public outrage over the men's detention had prompted the central government in Beijing had asked the Gansu provincial prosecution office to carry out an independent investigation into the case.
"Zhang Yongsheng's colleagues are all very worried about him, and we want him to be able to spend Chinese New Year [on Feb. 7] at home with his family," his colleague said.
Zhang Yongsheng's lawyer, who gave only his surname Liao, declined to comment on the case.
"You'll have to rely on reports from [state broadcaster] CCTV," Liao said. "I'm sorry, but it's not convenient for us to talk right now."
Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator, said the allegations against Zhang are likely a form of official retaliation.
"The allegations of extortion against Zhang Yongsheng appear to be a punishment for his critical reporting, and the legal process seems to be highly irregular," Dietz said in a statement.
"We call on Chinese authorities to immediately release Zhang on bail while they complete their investigation."
Zhang Yongsheng's lawyers told reporters they filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office on Jan. 20 after police repeatedly denied them access to the jailed journalist, CPJ said.
When they were finally able to meet with him on Jan. 22, he denied the charges, and said that he had been ordered not to speak to the media, official media reported last week.
Zhang Yongsheng's newspaper initially appeared to deny that Zhang Yongsheng had any involvement in extortion.
In an open letter, the paper said the journalist is being threatened because of critical articles, and that he had turned down offers of gifts and cash not to print them, or to delete them from the paper's website.
But it later issued a statement denying the letter's authenticity.
According to CPJ, media reports indicate that the Liangzhou district police station in Wuwei was angered by a report on the corruption trial of its deputy chief.
Zhang was threatened after refusing to take down the article, and was detained after telling his colleagues "the Wuwei police are after me," it said.
While China's state-controlled media is rife with corruption, with large sums and gifts changing hands in return for positive coverage or lack of critical coverage, allegations of corruption have also been used to target cutting-edge news organizations.
A lack of independent reporting of such cases makes it hard to determine whether the corruption charges are valid, or whether journalists are being framed for falling foul of a powerful official.
China is the leading jailer of journalists in the world, with at least 49 behind bars last year, according to the CPJ.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.