By Demetri Sevastopulo in Hong Kong
A Chinese newspaper on Wednesday took the unusual move of publishing a front-page editorial calling for the release of a reporter who was detained after accusing a big domestic company of fraud.
New Express, a Guangdong-based newspaper, ran a banner headline that read “Please Release Him” after police in Changsha, the capital of neighbouring Hunan province, said they had detained Chen Yongzhou.
In a rare example of Chinese media taking on the police, New Express said it “must speak out” about the detention of Mr Chen, who had written investigative stories about Zoomlion, China’s second-biggest construction equipment manufacturer that is part owned by the Hunan government.
“This is . . . a cry from the Chinese media. The voice is rarely heard so loud,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “‘Please Release Him’ – these three characters are very big and rarely seen.”
David Bandurski, a Chinese media expert at the University of Hong Kong, said there were no other examples of Chinese media taking such “overt or acerbic” action.
The case comes as authorities tighten their grip on the media, and crack down on what they describe as people spreading rumours on social media. It also comes as President Xi Jinping pushes a campaign to stamp out corruption.
Changsha police on Tuesday used Weibo – a Chinese service similar to Twitter – to say that Mr Chen was being investigated for “damaging commercial reputation”. Mr Chen had accused Zoomlion of falsifying sales numbers. The company has previously denied the claims, but declined to comment further on Wednesday.
In the editorial, New Express said Mr Chen had become a “poor soul” targeted for writing critical reports about Zoomlion, which is listed in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
“Imagine that you are a reporter who has written several stories criticising a certain company, and then one day Uncle Policeman comes and detains you,” the paper wrote.
Mr Chen is the second New Express journalist to be detained in recent months. Police arrested Liu Hu in August after he called for an investigation into a senior official at the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.
Media in Guangdong province tend to be the most aggressive in China in testing the limits of what the authorities will allow to be published. In January, journalists at Southern Weekend, another Guangdong publication, engaged in a weeklong stand-off with government officials over what they said was excessive censorship.
The New Express editorial attracted a lot of attention on Weibo on Wednesday, with a majority of people appearing to back the newspaper and to criticise the police.
“If Zoomlion insists that the reporter abused his media power, it should go to court to sue ‘New Express’, instead of letting police cross the province [to detain him],” Luo Changping, deputy editor of Caijing wrote on Weibo.
In 2005, the central Chinese government banned media based in one province from reporting on issues in other provinces, but the law has rarely been enforced.
Mr Chen even received support from Global Times, a conservative Communist party mouthpiece. Hu Xijin, chief editor, said he supported the “intervention of the Chinese Association of Journalists to protect journalists’ rights and interests in accordance with the law”.
New Express said it had exercised “extreme restraint” after Mr Chen was detained last week in the hope that it could negotiate his release, but later decided that its actions had been “cowardly”.
“If we were given another chance, we would still say ‘Uncle Policeman, Big Brother Zoomlion, we beg you, please set Chen Yongzhou free!’”