The ruling Chinese Communist Party has dismantled the in-depth features department at a major newspaper in Beijing, after sending in a top official to make sweeping changes that led to the resignations of dozens of editorial staff, RFA has learned.
Four journalists have left the Beijing-based Legal Evening News since the in-depth section of the newspaper—which had won a reputation for cutting-edge investigative reporting and in-depth features on crime and social issues—was abolished earlier this month, according to various sources in the industry.
One media source told RFA on Tuesday that the rumors were true, but declined to give any further information, owing to the shroud of official secrecy around the story.
"I can only confirm this, because I haven't seen any news on what is happening at the Legal Evening News released to the public yet; nothing," the source said. "I don't know if you can use that."
The move comes after the Communist Party Youth League committee appointed a high-ranking official in charge of the Beijing Youth Daily, Peng Liang, to take over at the paper, sparking dozens of resignations in protest.
The paper now runs an operation that is much thinner on original content, and with far fewer staff, overseas media reports have indicated.
The abolition of the in-depth features section was initially reported by its former editor Zhu Shunzhong on a social media group chat on May 4. But Zhu's post was deleted just one minute after posting, a source inside the Legal Evening News told RFA.
The source said that the editorial department has complained to management about the number of resignations as a result of the recent changes at the paper.
A journalist who answered the phone at the Legal Evening News on Tuesday declined to comment.
"I'm not really sure about this," the reporter said. "All the sections are managed by the editor-in-chief and the editorial team."
A second journalist who asked to remain anonymous estimated the number of resignations at the newspaper at around 90, since Peng's arrival.
He said that while just four journalists had quit as a result of the closure of the in-depth features department, many more remain worried that the paper will lose a considerable portion of its readership without that section.
Wang Lin, Tang Haifan and Zhu Shunzhong were the main trio of editors responsible for the Legal Evening News' in-depth features department.
Zhu has already been targeted by the Communist Party's powerful propaganda department, who had him taken on forced "vacation" last year after he posted messages it considered politically sensitive to his friends group on the social media app WeChat.
Some of the problematic content related to the targeting of hundreds of Chinese rights lawyers in a nationwide crackdown since July 2015, in particular the accusations of subversion that many faced.
In recent years, the in-depth features department conducted lengthy coverage and extensive follow-up reports on a number of high-profile legal cases, including the case of a woman's murder in Hohhot, capital of the northern Inner Mongolia region, for which an innocent ethnic Mongolian youth, Huugjilt, was executed in 1996.
Serial rapist and murderer Zhao Zhihong later confessed to the murder.
Factory worker Huugjilt, 18, was executed just 61 days after being found guilty of raping and killing the victim, official media reported. He was later exonerated following retrials in 2014 of both Huugjilt and Zhao, and the Legal Evening News' in-depth coverage was widely seen as contributing to the outcome.
According to Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, the changes at the paper are the latest in a long string of similar moves at other newspapers.
Recent developments at the paper echo the 2006 closure of Freezing Point, the cutting-edge news supplement to the prestigious China Youth Daily newspaper, after that paper was temporarily closed for 'rectification.'
The supplement's editors Li Datong and Lu Yuegang were transferred to work in the paper’s news research department, which they jokingly referred to at the time as being sent to "the warehouse."
"Large numbers of investigative journalists and investigative departments have been done away with, and this latest example shows us that the media are under massive pressure and low morale," Lui said.
"A lot of mainland Chinese journalists are in a very difficult situation, and are having to make compromises," he said.
As President Xi Jinping embarks on a second, unlimited term in office following the annual National People's Congress (NPC) in March, he is strengthening the ruling Chinese Communist Party's hold on all forms of public expression, enlarging its powerful propaganda department to absorb all government agencies responsible for regulating the mass media, and exporting its ideology to the rest of the world via a new mega-broadcaster.
Former Freezing Point editor Li Datong, who posted and forwarded an open letter opposing indefinite presidential rule on the social media platform WeChat, has likened the move to the massive Nazi propaganda takeover of books, newspapers and all forms of public speech in Germany during the 1930s.
Sichuan-based writer and publisher Huang Zerong, better known by his pen-name Tie Liu, said the changes at the Legal Evening News come as no surprise.
"This is to be expected at a time when there is an emphasis on ideological unity," Tie told RFA on Tuesday. "The news industry has to do as it is told, because they have to eat."
"All news content is being unified now, and local newspapers daren't report anything [independently]."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.