An editor working for a web portal with close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party is under investigation for blackmail, according to a media report that was later deleted from the country's tightly controlled Internet.
Xu Hui, a deputy editor at People.cn, is under investigation amid allegations that he approached various companies and threatened to publish negative news stories about them if they didn't buy advertising on the site, according to a news story that appeared on the NetEase news portal late on Wednesday.
An employee who answered the phone at the People.cn website said Xu is still officially in his post as deputy editor of the website.
"Yes, what of it?" the employee said. Asked if Xu was in the office on Thursday, the employee said: "I'm not sure. He's not in the same department as me. You should ask someone else."
The NetEase story was deleted from a number of news and social media sites by Thursday, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper.
The report came as the Communist Party's disciplinary arm in the northwestern region of Xinjiang announced it would probe a former party chief and chief editor of the Xinjiang Daily newspaper, Zhao Xinwei, for "disciplinary violations," the paper said.
Last September, Chinese authorities in Shanghai and Shenzhen detained eight people linked to the 21st Century group's news website and two public relations firms on suspicion of extortion.
The site's editor and deputy editor, as well as a number of marketing and editorial employees, and public relations employees were accused of extorting large sums money from dozens of Chinese companies, using positive or negative news stories as leverage.
Liu Kaiming, who directs the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern city of Shenzhen, said the People.cn case may be getting special treatment by China's censors.
"The scandal at 21st Century was widely reported, and yet this story at People.cn isn't being reported," Liu said. "I think that's very strange, because they have made a huge fuss in the past about instances of corruption in the media."
"So why aren't they reporting it this time? Has he been detained? If so, why don't they dare to report it? Everyone is concerned that a double standard may apply," he said.
‘Corruption in media is rife’
Independent journalist Zhu Xinxin, who is also a member of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN, said corruption in China's media is rife despite ever-tighter state controls over what may be reported.
"We see this sort of thing a lot," Zhu said. "A friend of mine works at the Hebei bureau of a national news organization and has told me in private that they have suppressed stories they had in hand about complaints from local people against local officials, and used them to squeeze various benefits out of local officials."
He said the problem exists across China's media industry.
"It doesn't matter whether the organization is big or small; journalists everywhere are trying to solve their financial problems, so it's hard to prevent people from finding loopholes to serve their personal interests," Zhu said.
"The most important factor here is that the media doesn't have an independent status, and has no freedom of debate or information," he said. "So, all people can do is put all their energies into using their professional position as a way of making money."
"Media is simply an add-on to the different levels of state power, and it has become very strongly tainted by it," Zhu said.
Earlier this month, China's powerful cyberspace regulator further tightened controls on syndicated online content with an official whitelist of 381 media organizations that are permitted to syndicate online news content.
The move, according to the Cyberspace Administration, was part of a campaign by Beijing to stamp out "false information" online.
More than a quarter of the places on the list are given to media under the direct control of party or government departments, including People.cn, it said.
Cutting-edge media like the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper and the 21st Century Business Herald didn't make the whitelist.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.