Authorities in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing have jailed the moderator of a social media news chat group bringing verified news from overseas to a Chinese audience, RFA has learned.
Liu Pengfei, who ran the Global Report news service on the popular social media app WeChat, among other platforms, was handed a two-year jail term by a district court in Chongqing, rights lawyer Shang Baojun said.
"According to my understanding, the charge was 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble'," Shang told RFA on Thursday. "But I haven't seen the judgment."
"I tried to contact his family after I saw the news, but they didn't get back to me," he said. "I have previously asked after them, but they don't want to be in contact with anyone [about this]."
Rights attorney Mo Shaoping, who has previously defended Liu, said the authorities were likely hoping for a low-profile trial and sentencing.
"I think they thought this would have a huge impact, because Global Report has posted a very large number of stories, some of them exposing the truth, which has made the authorities pretty angry," Mo said.
"I'm pretty sure both him and his family are under huge pressure, and they didn't even dare to hire [rights lawyers]," he said. "They probably got some other lawyers to do it, maybe appointed by the government."
Rights attorney Wen Donghai said the True Global News group on WeChat has been shut down by government censors, but that Liu did nothing wrong.
"I don't think he should have been jailed," Wen said. "He's just the moderator of a chat group on WeChat, writing a few comments in the group."
"They are just clamping down on freedom [of expression]: there are no objective guidelines; it's just whatever the authorities think shouldn't be said," he said.
Liu has a Ph.D. in technical physics and applied chemistry from Peking University, and has also studied at the Nuclear Research Institute at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.
After graduating, he worked at the Institute of Biophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Liu, 57, was initially detained at his Beijing home in September 2017, after which his case was handed over to authorities in Chongqing.
Chen Yuan, an overseas-based spokeswoman for Global Report, told RFA that all those who volunteered to run the group had been affected by the closure.
"We thought news from abroad was very interesting ... and we thought that people in China had a very closed-minded attitude," Chen said. "These stories were reported inside China, but they always had a certain angle, or led one to a particular conclusion."
"You used to be able to share video clips very easily in the past, but now it's much harder to send video out as a mass message to a group...especially if it mentions certain sensitive words...so we have to substitute words that sound the same," she said.
"Even if you send it, people in China won't be able to see it."
One of the most sensitive topics remains the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the weeks of student-led protests that preceded it, she said.
WeChat currently limits friends groups to 500 members, so Global News Report needs to run a large number of groups independently. It also uses accounts on Twitter and WhatsApp.
"That way, if enough people can scale the Great Firewall to log on, then they can retweet items to WeChat," she said. "It's getting harder and harder, because the controls are getting more and more sensitive."
"But people keep encouraging us, because they can see a whole other world through our reports," Chen said. "Some people don't care about politics. But even if only 10 percent of people see them, that will have an overall more progressive effect on society."
Chen said that, when the crackdown came, the family members of those involved in the group also had their accounts shut down, as they were on the same internet service provider's family plan.
"Even if you set up another account on a different phone, they'll find that too and shut it down."
Liu set up the Global Report WeChat and Twitter groups in 2014 around the time of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong.
Its aim was to spread news of important global events, pictures and comments to users behind the complex network of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xiao An for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.