Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangdong have detained and questioned the editor of a newspaper which first reported the recently discovered case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the city, RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin services report.

Three officials from the city state prosecution bureau, the People's Procuratorate, arrived at the newspaper offices at 4 pm Tuesday and took away its editor-in-chief, Cheng Yizhong.

Cheng, who is editor-in-chief of the Southern Capital News , part of the highly successful Southern Newspaper Group, was detained for eight hours and released at midnight, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement faxed to RFA.

The Southern Capital News was first with the news that a new case of SARS had been found in the city, the first since the Chinese authorities proclaimed the disease, caused by a coronavirus, contained in July 2003.

While cutting-edge organizations like the Southern Newspaper Group have been praised for their role in helping to expose official corruption in some parts of China, the authorities still crack down on investigative reporting when it occurs in the newspaper's home town.

Increased sensitivity over criticism of the Chinese government's handling of the SARS epidemic at its outset is also likely to have prompted official interference in newsgathering activities.

Cheng returned to work at his paper Wednesday, but there were likely plainclothes police officers stationed in and outside the building, the Information Center said. While Chinese plainclothes officers generally refuse to comment on their status, they are clearly recognisable by their clothing and body language.

Cheng's mistake is likely to have been that his paper reported the first case of SARS without obtaining the prior approval of the Guangdong provincial party committee, ruffling feathers among the provincial leadership, the Information Center said.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper reported that the journalist who broke the story, Zeng Wenqiong, had already been fired by way of punishment, and that Cheng was detained in connection with matters of an economic nature.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese health officials confirmed Jan. 5 that a 32-year-old television producer�identified by his surname, Luo�was indeed suffering from SARS. The news prompted the provincial government to speed up a planned slaughter of 10,000 civet cats, thought to be linked to the migration of the virus to humans.

Luo has made a full recovery and is likely to be discharged from hospital Thursday, official media reported. #####


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