Chinese authorities in Shanghai and Shenzhen have detained eight people linked to a major news website and two public relations firms after accusing them of extortion, official media reported on Thursday.
Shanghai police said the suspects include the editor and deputy editor, as well as a number of marketing and editorial employees, of news website 21cbh.com, as well as employees of public relations companies in Shanghai and Shenzhen, Xinhua news agency reported.
They are accused of "extorting money" from dozens of Chinese companies since last November in connection with a number of news reports about those companies' activities, police said.
Some companies allegedly paid large sums for positive stories to be published, while others paid to have negative news about them quashed or denied.
The suspects "have made huge personal profits from their actions," Xinhua quoted police as saying.
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.
The move appears to target widespread corruption in China's tightly controlled media, which is spreading fast amid dwindling readership and lack of other revenue.
Journalists and publications are increasingly relying on "compensated news" to boost their income, which sometimes includes payments for not publishing negative news, industry sources told RFA.
"If journalists get hold of a big story, like pollution or illegal activities, and are about to report it, [companies] will pay money to shut them up," Nanjing-based freelance journalist Sun Lin said.
"The [journalists] say to them, if you don't pay out, then I'll report it," he said. "This is incredibly common in the Chinese media."
'Critical' reporting banned
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.
"Starting last year, Chinese media organizations have been forced away from being more market-driven, and back towards being more party-driven," independent writer Ye Du said.
"Compensated news is a very common phenomenon in the Chinese media."
Last June, the government banned the reporting of "critical" news items, threatening journalists who contravene the ban with the loss of their reporting credentials.
Under guidelines issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, reporters in China are now forbidden to publish critical reports without the prior approval of their employer.
Journalists told RFA at the time that the rules have the dual effect of limiting news reports critical of the government and of clamping down on the widespread practice of "cash for news," or "cash for no news."
Journalists who violate the rules will be stripped of their license to report, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said in a statement.
According to former Beijing University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao, the root cause of corruption in China's media is the overall lack of press freedom.
"There are real problems with the credibility of Chinese media organizations," Jiao said. "Corruption definitely needs cleaning up in the media."
"They should allow the media to report freely, and allow it to compete within a free market for information," he said.
"Controls on the media, on news, and on public expression mean there is no room for normal and healthy development in the profession."
"A lot of media have gone over to the dark side," Jiao said. "Even journalists with Xinhua and the People's Daily aren't above such behavior."
Jiao said the media should be allowed to dig up the truth, with no official interference.
"If the party pays the media, then the media becomes its mouthpiece," he said. "That's all wrong."
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 Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.