As the Chinese government continues a crackdown on freedom of the press, the New Express newspaper in Guangzhou has made an unprecedented front-page appeal for the release of one of its journalists.
In a daring front page splash, the state-run tabloid ran a three-character headline saying, “Please release him,” and pleaded with police in the central city of Changsha to set reporter Chen Yongzhou free.
Chen was detained after writing a series of stories that questioned the financial dealings of a major state-owned construction equipment maker, called Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. Ltd.
The journalist was held for “damage to business reputation.”
New Express is one of China’s feistier papers. It offers cash to readers who come up with stories and its aggression has been noted over the years.
The editorial said that the newspaper had believed there would be no problem as long as it reported responsibly.
“But the fact is, we are too naive. Chen Yongzhou spent three days and three nights in jail before he saw a lawyer,” it added.
The front-page piece was widely carried on Weibo, the Chinese version of the banned Twitter service, and also ran in Chinese mainstream media, without any obvious censorship.
“Even though Zoomlion is very strong and has paid a lot of taxes in Changsha, we are still class brethren, and there are contradictions here,” the commentary said. “We beg the police, our brothers, please let Chen Yongzhou go.”
Zoomlion said it had complained to the Changsha police about Chen following his stories.
“The reason we did it was to safeguard the legitimate rights of the company,” Zoomlion vice president Sun Changjun told the Reuters, without elaborating.
There is an added complication in that Sany Group, a key competitor of Zoomlion in Changsha, has said that New Express planted Chen’s stories.
The newspaper said it had held off making a statement about Chen’s detention, which happened on Oct. 19, because they were worried he might be mistreated.
“We are a small newspaper, but we have the backbone no matter how poor we are,” New Express said.
It also said that it would use top lawyers to help protect the rights of its employee.
On its blog, Changsha’s Public Security Bureau said: “New Express journalist Chen is suspected of the crime of damaging business reputation, and so on Oct. 19 was detained by police according to the law.”
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 ambitious in terms of calling for press freedom. And Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, has been more daring 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 an editorial 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, not central, government organization.