The editor-in-chief of state-run newspaper China Economic Times has been removed, days after its investigative reporting team led by veteran journalist Wang Keqin was disbanded.
The investigative unit, whose closure was announced a week ago, had earned praise for its steadfast coverage of various issues, including
official complicity in the fatal distribution of bad vaccinations in the northern province of Shanxi and
the suspicious death of a land-rights advocate
Editor-in-chief Zhang Jianjing said on Monday he had been offered a new job.
"Yes, that's right," Zhang replied when asked to confirm reports from sources close to the paper that he was being transferred to the China Economic Yearbook under the same cabinet-level research body.
"I am on leave right now, and there are things that need to be sorted out with the relevant newspapers," he added.
But he declined to comment further. "It's not convenient for me to talk right now," Zhang said. "Let's speak soon, shall we?"
Sources close to the paper said that Zhang's transfer and the shut-down of Wang's team were definitely linked, but that Zhang would likely not lose seniority with the move.
"The fact that there was a lot of news released that revealed the truth under the leadership of Wang Keqin had a lot to do with [Zhang's transfer]," said the source, who declined to be named.
Asked where Wang would now work, the source replied: "There have been no arrangements made for him, nor for the other people [on the team]."
Repeated calls to Wang's phone went unanswered or switched to a recorded message on Friday.
Call for explanation
The 2010 survey of global press freedom carried out by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres put China 171st out of 178 countries and territories for journalistic autonomy.
Last week, the group condemned the closure of Wang's team, saying it is concerned about his fate and that of the five other team members.
"The unit's closure, which defies all editorial logic, comes at a particularly repressive time for those who defend fundamental rights and for independently minded journalists," the group said in a statement.
"The newspaper's management must provide a clear explanation for this measure," it said, calling Wang "a pioneer of investigative journalism in China."
Since joining China Economic Times 10 years ago, Wang's team broke major stories including an in-depth look at the Beijing taxi monopoly in 2002 and the deaths of Shanxi children who had received defective vaccines in 2010.
The paper's former editor-in-chief Bao Yueyang was forced to stand down in May 2010 after the vaccine scandal was first reported.
Death threats, violence
Wang, whose name is a byword for investigative journalism in China, has been the target of death threats and physical violence on several occasions as a result of his work.
The decision to shut down the two-year-old investigative unit was announced last week at a meeting held by the paper’s Communist Party Committee—days after Wang published an article on his blog lauding the maturation of investigative reporting in China.
In his article, Wang, 47, wrote that Chinese investigative journalism had greatly improved over the past decade, “showing a higher and higher degree of professionalism” by reporters who are “receiving increasing attention and respect by general society.”
China's government has maintained its stranglehold on the media, however, ignoring increasing vocal calls for better press freedom.
Hundreds of journalists and retired Communist Party officials signed an open letter last October calling on China's parliament to put an end to government censorship of the media.
The letter also demanded legal backing to constitutional freedoms of speech and association.
Penned by Li Rui, a former secretary of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and Party elder Hu Jiwei, the letter said media organizations should be allowed to give up their role as Party mouthpieces and take on independent responsibility.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.