Chinese authorities in Shanghai have 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.
The indictment paves the way for a trial involving one of the country's top financial newspapers, the 21st Century Business Herald.
The number being indicted is much higher than the previous number reported last year, and the charges include "extortion," "blackmail," and "forced" transactions, the Shanghai Pudong district prosecution office said in a statement.
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, former president of its 21cbh.com news site were among those named.
They are accused of extorting more than 100 million yuan (U.S.$15.6 million) from dozens of Chinese companies since November 2013 in connection with a number of news reports about those companies' activities.
Some companies allegedly paid large sums for positive stories to be published, while others paid to have negative news about them quashed or denied, police said at the time of their arrest in September 2014.
Meanwhile, a number of companies that refused to make payments to 21cbh.com were further threatened with negative reports, some of which were subsequently published.
Likely politically motivated
While the case comes amid a background of widespread bribe-taking and corruption in China's tightly controlled media, analysts said the targeting of 21st Century, which is linked to the cutting-edge Guangzhou-based Nanfang newspaper group, is likely politically motivated.
"The real reason they are targeting these media organizations is that they don't do as they are told," Nanjing-based journalist Sun Lin, who contributes to the overseas-based Boxun news website, told RFA.
"They are making it look as if their advertising revenue is a bribe."
Beijing-based lawyer Mo Shaoping said the indictment notice lacked enough detail backing up the charges.
"The statement is too simple, and we will have to wait for the details to see how they are supposed to have done these things, how the extortion is supposed to have been carried out," Mo said.
"There are both individuals and companies who have been indicted for extortion here," he said.
Mo said any companies found guilty of extortion face a fine, but individuals could be sent to prison.
Calls to the head office of the 21st Century group in Guangzhou rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Corruption in state media
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.
Since last year, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has tightened the leash on media organizations, which it had previously hoped would become more market-oriented and financially independent, industry observers said.
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.
21cbh.com is part of a stable of publications owned by Guangdong-based 21st Century Media, which includes 21st Century Business Herald, Money Week, and 21st Century Business Review.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.