Five Hong Kong journalists have been detained, dragged into interrogation rooms for hours and expelled by authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong after they tried to cover a crackdown by armed police on the rebel village of Wukan following weeks of peaceful protests.
The journalists had been sent to cover clashes between riot police and local residents in the village, where thousands of local people have been protesting the jailing of their former leader Lin Zuluan on "bribery" charges.
Ming Pao staff association chairwoman Phyllis Tsang said two of the newspaper's reporters had traveled to Wukan alongside a reporter for the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper.
They were all detained, she said.
"One of them was a writer for the China edition and the other was a photographer," Tsang said. "They were detained in a raid by more than 20 plainclothes police officers on a village house in Wukan at around 9.00 p.m. on Wednesday."
"The police immediately started yelling at them and forced them to squat down, and one of them was struck on the face during this process, while another was beaten in the stomach and chest," she said.
"Then they dragged them into a vehicle and down to the police station, where they were held for around five hours," Tsang said. "They were released at around 2.00 a.m. this morning after they had signed an agreement never to conduct 'unauthorized reporting' in Lufeng again."
"They were escorted to Shenzhen by car in the middle of the night, where they were released."
Violent treatment condemned
Ernest Chi, editor-in-chief of news portal HK01.com, said the remaining two of the five detained journalists were working for his organization.
"Two of our colleagues arrived in Lufeng city at 9.00 a.m. [on Wednesday] en route to cover the latest developments in Wukan, and tried to get into ... the municipal hospital," Chi told RFA on Thursday.
"But they were taken to the Lufeng municipal police department ... for questioning, and held for more than five hours," Chi said.
"During that time, our colleagues weren't treated violently, but ... we are aware that other journalists were treated violently, and we are very concerned about that," he said.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) on Thursday issued a statement strongly condemning the "violent treatment" of Hong Kong journalists.
"The [HKJA calls] on the Hong Kong government to look into the matter and take effective measures to protect the rights and safety of Hong Kong journalists working in the mainland," it said in a statement on its website.
The BBC also reported that its journalists in Wukan were stopped from entering the village.
Meanwhile, the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said foreign journalists were "obsessed" with Wukan, and accused them of fomenting trouble in the village.
'Foreign forces' blamed
It said the 80 days of protest had been staged mostly by Lin's relatives and people who wanted to make money by causing trouble, although it didn't specify how.
"And a few are taking orders from foreign forces," it said.
"Even though some foreign media have been unscrupulously inciting, planning, and directing chaos, local police have not resorted to violence to solve the issue," the paper said.
Tensions remained high amid tight security after dozens of people were been beaten by police or injured by rubber bullets and detained, local residents said on Thursday.
"There are police and plainclothes officers and vehicles going back and forth, which is disrupting people's lives," an Wukan resident who asked to remain anonymous told RFA. "They are detaining people just for making phone calls [to the outside world]."
He said the five journalists were "betrayed" after a reward was offered for information on their whereabouts.
"There are a few people in Wukan who are on the government's side ... and they have been betraying Wukan residents and betraying journalists," he said. "They inform on us to the government."
Criminal proceedings loom
Local sources said a handful of people have been released since Wednesday's raids, but many remain in police custody and could face criminal proceedings.
U.S.-based former Wukan resident Zhuang Liehong said his father and three people who sheltered journalists were among those issued with notifications of criminal detention.
According to China Media Project editor David Bandurski, the accusation that "foreign forces" are behind any calls for democracy, transparency or just treatment is now a familiar theme in China's official media, which President Xi Jinping has said must work for the ruling party.
"For Xi Jinping, the Wukan model is a dangerous precedent that must be not just crushed but discredited," he wrote in an article on Medium.com.
"This time, it is Wukan’s failed experiment in engagement and democracy that will be mythologized, and Lin Zuluan’s shame that will be paraded before the public."
The crackdown in Wukan comes after a court in Guangdong's Foshan city sentenced Lin Zuluan, 72, to more than three years' imprisonment on "bribery" charges.
Lin, former Wukan party secretary and former leader of earlier land protests in 2011, was handed a 37-month jail term and a U.S. $60,000 fine by the Foshan Intermediate People's Court last week, after it found him guilty of taking bribes and of other charges.
Wukan residents rejected the sentence, staging further protests over charges they said were trumped up.
Lin, 72, was made the new head of the village in 2012 as former protest leaders were elected to positions on the village committee following weeks of protests, and after a standoff at the barricades made world headlines after the death of a protester in police custody in 2011.
The provincial government, unusually, took the side of the villagers, overruling officials in Lufeng and firing former party secretary Xue Chang from his post on corruption charges.
The elections that followed were widely reported in China's tightly controlled media as a model of grassroots democracy.
But a committee charged with getting the villagers' farmland back made scant progress, and two of its members were themselves jailed on "bribery" charges last year, in a move their relatives said was a form of political retaliation.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap and Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.