A cutting-edge newspaper based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has called in an unprecedented front-page appeal for the release of one of its journalists.
In a front-page splash headline in its Wednesday edition, the New Express newspaper called on police in the southern city of Changsha to "Please Let Him Go."
"Dear readers, our reporter Chen Yongzhou has been taken away by Changsha police operating across provincial borders after he reported problems with the accounts of Zoomlion Heavy Industries," the paper said.
While all Chinese newspapers are tightly controlled by the propaganda department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, some continue to push the limits set down for them, in particular through investigative reporting of alleged corruption.
"We had always believed that it was enough to carry out responsible reporting and that then no problems would arise, or that if they did we could apologize or correct them or compensate [the relevant parties] through the courts, and that even if we were shut down, that we would have deserved it," the article said.
"Now, events have clearly shown us that we were too naive."
Held for 'damaging business reputation'
It said Chen was detained on Friday on "suspicion of damaging business reputation" after he wrote 15 articles on "financial problems" at Zoomlion, a giant engineering company and a major taxpayer in Changsha, capital of neighboring Hunan province.
It said the paper's editors were "ashamed" that they hadn't spoken out sooner, for fear of triggering the journalist's mistreatment in detention.
The government holds a 20 percent stake in construction-machinery maker Zoomlion, which is listed on stock markets in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, where its shares are currently worth more than U.S. $8 billion.
"We are a small newspaper, but we have some backbone in spite of being poor," the New Express article said.
It said it had carried out its own investigation into the 15 articles penned by Chen, and had found one mistake: his reporting of the company's "advertising and entertainment" budget of 513 million yuan (U.S. $84.3 million), when it should have been described as an advertising budget alone.
"However, if police ... have uncovered further evidence, we invite them to make it public, and we will defer to them in respect," the paper said.
It said armed police from Changsha were also currently looking for the paper's economic news director, who has been in hiding for several days, too afraid to go home.
Chen's articles accused Zoomlion of providing fraudulent accounting figures, including inflated profit data, the New Express said on its official account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
Zoomlion and its subsidiaries earned more than 12 billion yuan (U.S. $2.0 billion) in profits and tax revenues last year, according to the company's website.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.