Row Over Reporter's Detention Leads to Campaign for His Release


2013.10.24
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china-chen-yongzhou-headline-oct-2013.jpg A woman reads the New Express newspaper editorial headlined 'Please release our man' about Chen Yongzhou in Guangzhou, Oct. 23, 2013.
AFP

China's official media regulator said on Thursday it was paying "close attention" to the case of an investigative journalist for a newspaper in Guangdong province's Guangzhou city, who was detained by police from another city last week after writing articles about a major state-backed engineering company.

"The General Association of Press and Publishing (GAPP) resolutely supports the news media conducting normal interviewing and reporting activities and resolutely protects journalists' normal and legal rights to interview," the association's own China Press and Publishing Journal cited a GAPP official as saying.

"At the same time, it resolutely opposes any abuse of the right to conduct interviews."

The article said the association was paying "close attention" to the detention of Chen Yongzhou by Changsha police last week, after he published around 15 stories criticizing the financial reporting and business practices of Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology, a state-owned construction equipment maker and one of Changsha's biggest corporate taxpayers.

Chen's newspaper, the Guangzhou-based New Express, reacted with an unusually daring front-page splash headline which read "Please free him," on Wednesday, followed by a second headline on Thursday which read "Again, please free him."

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.

Chen's arrest, which came amid growing curbs on freedom of expression and a crackdown on online "rumors," has sparked public outrage, particularly among Chinese netizens, which the GAPP official said had been "noted."

His reports accused Zoomlion of engaging in sales fraud, exaggerating its profits and using public relations to defame its competitors.

The company has strongly denied the reports, and told Reuters on Wednesday it had complained about them to the Changsha police, who then detained the journalist on charges of "defaming a business."

Media directive


Meanwhile, the All China Journalists Association, which is controlled by the Communist Party in Beijing, told state media that it had asked the ministry of public security, which controls the police, to "guarantee Chen's safety and handle the matter fairly."

An employee who answered the phone in the New Express newsroom on Thursday declined to comment on Chen's case, referring inquiries to the paper's official account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.

"We aren't giving interviews for the time being," the employee said. "Any new information will be released on our Weibo account."

And an employee who answered the phone at the Changsha municipal police department declined to comment, saying he was unfamiliar with the situation.

Repeated calls to Zoomlion's offices in Changsha went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.

However, the authorities in Beijing also appeared keen to damp down public reaction to Chen's detention.

The Party's Central Propaganda Department issued a directive banning news organizations from covering Chen's detention, or the New Express' front page headline calling for his release.

"All websites are asked to remove ... articles and commentary [regarding] the detention of New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou [and] the News Express' front page story," the department said in a directive dated Oct. 23 and published by the China Digital Times (CDT), which monitors censorship instructions to Chinese media.

Many Chinese-language media outlets had carried stories about the incident on Tuesday and Wednesday with no obvious sign of official censorship.

Petition

Chen's detention sparked an open petition begun by a group of rights lawyers across the country calling for his release, lawyer Tang Jitian said.

"Public supervision of press freedom is an absolute requirement if we are to move towards a civilized society," Tang said.

"This journalist didn't break the law, and was carrying out his profession in an honest manner, according to his professional conscience."

Meanwhile, Chen Hongguo, assistant professor at the Northwestern University of Politics and Law, said the Changsha police had overstepped their powers in detaining Chen.

"This is a terrible business that sets a very bad precedent," he said. "The journalist was just doing his job in writing these reports."

"If you use state power to deal with what is essentially a civil dispute ... this is very dangerous," he said.

Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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