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Detained Reporter in China Apologizes for Filing Untrue Stories

China Lawyer Problem - P 2013

Guangzhou's New Express had previously run a front-page appeal calling for Chen Yongzhou's release.

The front page of Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express has been a busy place in the past week, with headlines exposing the twists and turns of a story that shifted from a bold statement about press freedom to a confession of journalistic impropriety.

On Wednesday it ran an unprecedented appeal for the release of one of its reporters, Chen Yongzhou, detained on suspicion of damaging the reputation of one of China's biggest heavy equipment makers, Zoomlion.

The largest shareholder in Zoomlion is the provincial government in the central province of Hunan.

EARLIER: Chinese Newspaper Pleads for Reporter's Freedom Amid Free-Speech Crackdown 

The front-page splash looked like a rare appeal by a state-owned newspaper in the face of a crackdown on the media, but by the weekend it was clear that something more was going on.

On Sunday (Oct. 27), the newspaper pulled a complete U-turn, running a front-page apology after the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) ran a story showing a handcuffed and shaven-headed Chen confessing to running a series of untrue stories alleging financial crimes by Zoomlion "to gain money and fame."

He said he had been supplied the stories to run by unspecified "other people."

"I did not check the content of these articles and only made minor changes. I used some vague words so that I and the New Express would not be targeted," Chen said to the local police.

He wanted to apologize and "learn a lesson from myself."

New Express is one of China's bolder papers. It offers cash to readers who come up with stories and its aggression has been noted over the years.

The paper said a preliminary police investigation found that Chen had been incited by others to publish numerous false reports in exchange for cash, and was critical of its own editorial stance for not carefully reviewing his articles before publishing, saying it had learned a "profound lesson."

The CCTV report showed Chen, speaking in prison uniform from a police detention center in the Changsha, where Zoomlion is headquartered.

Chen had written more than 10 articles accusing Zoomlion of losing state assets, unusual sales practices and false reporting, which hit the company's stock price. He confessed on TV that he received $80,000 to report Zoomlion to regulatory agencies in Beijing and Hong Kong.

There is an added complication in that Sany Group, a key competitor of Zoomlion in Changsha, has said New Express had planted Chen's stories.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission said in a written reply that after checking and investigating, they found no evidence of Zoomlion's central China sales area having made false sales and financial statements, nor did they find conflicting data, the Global Times reported.

The Chinese media is predominantly owned by the government and is kept on a tight leash, but the south of the country tends to be more daring in terms of calling for press freedom and Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, has been more audacious than others in pushing for greater freedoms. The province adjoins Hong Kong, where media freedom is guaranteed.

In the last few years, there have been occasional clashes between Chinese media outlets and the authorities.

In January, journalists at Southern Weekend, also based in Guangzhou, took to the streets to protest after a propaganda official rewrote a New Year's editorial on political reform. The protest was relatively tame but it was widely reported online. The official changed the op-ed into a Communist Party tribute.

The row sparked small protests and displays of solidarity from other media outlets before the issue was resolved.

It is possible that the criticism has been tolerated because it focuses on a regional government, not a central government, organization.