Please release him: Guangdong newspaper in rare public appeal for freedom of journalist

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 8:54am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 3:55pm

Three Chinese characters - “please release him” - cover almost a third of Wednesday’s front page of the New Express, a popular newspaper in Guangdong province, in an unprecedented call for press freedom by a major Chinese media outlet.

The newspaper reacted to yesterday’s first reports of the detention of Chen Yongzhou, a journalist writing for the daily paper, on Friday.

Chen was detained in Guangzhou by police from the central Chinese city of Changsha on suspicion of “damaging the commercial reputation” of China’s second-largest maker of construction equipment, Zoomlion, which is headquartered in the capital of Hunan province.

He is the second New Express staffer to be detained in as many months, after Liu Hu, a Chongqing-based investigative reporter, was taken away from his home and has since been formally arrested on libel charges. He had called for an investigation into Ma Zhengqi, deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, on his Sina Weibo account.

Chen’s detention follows his fifteen-part investigative report series on Zoomlion, one of Changsha’s largest companies and partly owned by Hunan province, exposing financial fraud. The company denied the allegations, but the reports pulled its Hong Kong-listed stock price to a two-year-low in May.

On Monday evening, Changsha police confirmed on its Sina Weibo microblog that Chen had been placed under criminal detention three days earlier. Police also searched his office in Guangzhou on Monday, the newspaper said on Wednesday. 

“What if you are a journalist, you write some reports criticising a company. Then one day, an uncle from the police grabs you,” the New Express wrote on Wednesday.

“We always thought, if we reported responsibly, nothing could happen,” it continued. “We were too naïve.”

The paper's editorial has been shared tens of thousands of times among Chinese microbloggers on Wednesday, turning it within hours into the most-shared post on the largest platform Sina Weibo by far.

Internet users were quick to notice that Zoomlion's founder and president, Zhan Chunxin, was well connected in the province. He is the son of Hunan's former top judge, Zhan Chunzhu, and married to the daughter of the long-time provincial Communist Party Secretary Wan Li, Wan Xiaoli.

The front-page appeal is a "rare example of a media in China appealing directly to the public over the welfare of one of its journalists," said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. "Cases like this are rarely ever made so openly."

"One important factor at play here is the cross-regional dynamic," he said. "This is a Guangzhou newspaper whose reporter is being targeted by local authorities in Hunan province. Just as the paper made a calculated risk in reporting a harder-hitting story about a company in a neighboring province, they are making a calculated risk in running this front-page call for attention to Chen Yongzhou's case."

* Correction: An earlier version of the article called the newspaper Modern Express.