Chinese prosecutors on Friday announced an investigation into two top executives at the online news website of ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily.
Liao Hong, president of the news site people.com.cn and vice president Chen Zhixia are being investigated on suspicion of bribery, the Supreme People's Procuratorate said in a statement on its official website.
"Under the direction of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Henan People's Procuratorate has placed Liao Hong and ... Chen Zhixia under coercive measures," the statement said.
It said the two men are currently being investigated for "suspected bribery."
"Coercive measures" usually refers to a compulsory summons, bail, residential surveillance, detention or arrest.
Liao Hong, 52, had been in high-ranking positions at the People's Daily website since 2004, and was last seen in public at a media financial conference in Shenzhen on Aug. 19.
Media corruption seen as rife
Xu Xiang, a veteran former journalist with the official Xinhua news agency, said corruption is rife in China's tightly controlled state media.
"The media has been referred to as the fourth estate, but in a country like China where you don't have press freedom, then the management of public opinion can be a double-edged sword," Xu said.
"It seems normal to me that they would detain ... top executives at the People's Daily website," he said. "They have already reached the highest echelons of power, where a journalist can hold a gun to anyone's head and take whatever they want."
"They have the power to sing the praises of powerful people, to conduct follow-up interviews and reports, and to whitewash them," Xu said.
He said the People's Daily Online is a large organization with a finger in a great many pies.
"Every one of its bureaux also has businesses attached to it and projects it is involved in," he added.
Guangzhou-based independent writer Ye Du said the People's Daily Online acts as a window on what is going on behind the scenes in Beijing.
"They are a window on official ideology, and also a department charged with managing ideology," Ye said.
"Whenever something goes wrong at any of the big media organizations [like state broadcaster CCTV, the People's Daily or the official news agency Xinhua], then only official reports about it can be used," he said.
"Other media organizations aren't allowed to come up with their own reporting."
Promise of positive propaganda
The People's Daily newspaper, in a statement carried on its website, said it demanded the company fully cooperate with the investigation and learn lessons from the case, adding that the website is operating as normal.
"People.cn will as always do its propaganda reporting work well, upholding the guiding principles of unity, stability, encouragement and positive propaganda," it said.
The arrests at the People's Daily Online come after authorities in Shanghai indicted more than 30 journalists and 15 companies on extortion charges, including former top editors and executives of the 21st Century media group, prosecutors said last week.
The indictment paves the way for a trial involving one of the country's top financial newspapers, the 21st Century Business Herald.
Shen Hao, former chairman of 21st Century Media Co., former editor-in-chief of the group's 21st Century Business Herald newspaper Liu Hui, and Liu Dong, stand accused of extorting more than 100 million yuan (U.S.$15.6 million) from dozens of Chinese companies since November 2013 in return for positive coverage.
Industry analysts say corruption is spreading fast amid dwindling readership and lack of other revenue in China's tightly controlled state media.
Journalists and publications are increasingly relying on "compensated news" to boost their income, which sometimes includes payments for not publishing negative news, industry sources have previously told RFA.
In June 2014, the government banned the reporting of "critical" news items, threatening journalists who contravene the ban with the loss of their reporting credentials.
According to veteran Hebei-based reporter and Independent Chinese PEN member Zhu Xinxin, the administration of President Xi Jinping has tightened the leash on media organizations since taking power in November 2012.
"Without reforms to the entire political system, nothing will change or improve in any government department," Zhu said.
"The media organizations under their control can only move with the political forces of the day; they will never have their own independence or their own status," he said.
"It doesn't matter how hard people work further down the system if there is no reform to the system itself," Zhu added.
Reported by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.