Authorities in the Chinese capital have criminally detained a freelance journalist working for the overseas-based Boxun news website after he contributed "false stories," official media reported on Tuesday, amid a growing clampdown on free speech ahead of the sensitive 25th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Beijing resident Xiang Nanfu, who often writes under the pen-name Fei Xiang, had sold a number of "fabricated" news stories to Boxun since 2009, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
He was detained by Beijing police on May 3 on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and had "confessed and showed great penitence for his crimes," the agency said.
Xiang had written a number of stories for Boxun that Xinhua said were "fabricated," including a report that the Chinese government had harvested organs from living people and buried them alive, and one alleging that police had beaten a pregnant woman to death in a land dispute, the agency quoted Beijing police as saying.
It said Xiang had been commissioned to write the stories and "highly paid" in U.S. dollars by Boxun.
"The false information has seriously misled the public and Internet users and denigrated the image of the state," Xinhua said.
Boxun, which typically focuses on news that would be censored out of China's tightly controlled official media, on Tuesday rejected the charges against Xiang, saying the human rights situation in China is continuing to deteriorate.
"Boxun strongly protests the seizing of Boxun's reporter Mr. Xiang Nanfu," the news site said in a statement.
Boxun's founder Wei Shi said Xiang's detention comes amid a worsening climate for freedom of speech and dissenting opinion.
"The political climate is getting more and more restrictive," he said. "We looked out the stories they mentioned and there are photographs and evidence to back them up."
He said the authorities are particularly sensitive about Chinese-language news media based outside China's borders, because they can't control what it reports.
"Oppressive tactics like these make it impossible to be optimistic about China's future," Wei said. "But technology is so advanced these days that suppressing a single media organization won't work."
Nanjing-based freelance journalist Jie Mu, who has himself been held under criminal detention for publishing stories considered sensitive by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on Boxun, said any journalist seeking to expose government wrongdoing in China is vulnerable to similar retaliation.
"It always boils down to the same thing; the person who 'confesses' is only caving in to pressure when faced with threats and oppressive tactics used by the government," Jie said.
He said the authorities are increasingly using public order charges like "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" to target dissent.
"If they are claiming that the stories aren't factual, or that they're exaggerated, or that they're rumors, then they should bring some other charges," Jie said.
"It's a travesty of the law to say this is picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
Chinese authorities last week placed outspoken veteran journalist Gao Yu under criminal detention on charges of leaking state secrets amid a widening crackdown on dissidents ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Gao was paraded on the state television channel, where she was shown, her face blurred on screen, apparently confessing to having obtained a highly confidential document and sent it to an overseas website.
Authorities have also detained six other activists, including lawyers, academics and journalists, who attended a seminar ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, as controls continue to tighten on dissent, free speech and the Internet.
Meanwhile, Beijing-based journalist Wu Wei, who currently works as an adviser for the International Center for Communication Development (ICCD), has been missing—presumed detained—for a week, according to U.S.-based journalist Wen Yunchao.
The ICCD has offices in several Chinese cities, and conducts communications training programs.
A reporter for Japan's Nikkei Shimbun was also taken away by state security police on Tuesday, Hong Kong's Chinese-language Oriental Daily News reported.
Both journalists had taken a close interest in the case of prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was detained last week alongside other activists at the Tiananmen seminar, sources said.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see and Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.