Detained journalist, newspaper apologise publicly in shocking twist to New Express saga
New Express journalist admits on air to taking money to publish critical articles of Zoomlion
Mimi Lau and Chris Luo
Guangzhou-based New Express on Sunday issued an apology and condemned its detained reporter for writing false stories, after the newspaper ran unusual front-page appeals for his release two days in a row earlier this week, prompting an barrage of online discussions.
“According to police’s preliminary investigation, our reporter Chen Yongzhou had accepted money to publish a a large number of false reports, seriously violating the verification principle,” read a statement on the newspaper’s Sunday frontpage.
Referring to the high-profile demands it published earlier for Chen's release, the apology statement said, “The inappropriate conduct the newspaper carried out after the event has severely damaged the credibility of the media."
The newspaper apologised for its editorial department's lax screening process on stories and promised to enforce more stringent policies on its reporters to “value truth” and “to obey laws”.
This is the latest dramatic twist of Chen’s case regarding a series of stories with his bylines published since last year that were accused of "smearing the name" of a Hunan-based heavy equipment manufacturer.
On Saturday, state broadcaster CCTV aired a video of Chen confessing to accepting money to publish a series of unverified articles critical of machinery giant Zoomlion, which is based in Hunan.
Chen's high-profile confession on CCTV stunned the many mainland journalists, lawyers and rights activists who had rallied to Chen's defence last week after his newspaper, the Guangzhou-based New Express, published two unusual front-page editorials calling for his release. Some expressed concern that the confession had been coerced.
"We are shocked to the core by this unexpected twist," said a New Express reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The whole newsroom was stunned by the rapid reversal; editors were silent and our online discussion group was empty. Chen's confession feels like a blow to the newspaper and his supporters."
The video showed Chen - handcuffed, wearing a green prison jumpsuit and his head shaved - admitting to accepting hundreds of thousands of yuan from an unidentified middleman. The man supplied him with articles to publish under his byline.
"I'm willing to confess and I'm willing to repent my crime," he told police in what appeared to be a detention centre in Changsha , Hunan's capital. "[It's] mainly because of money and fame. I was being used."
Chen said he "did not check the content of these articles" and "made only minor changes" before handing them to his editors. One payment was for 500,000 yuan (HK$637,000), he said.
Since last year, the New Express has run more than a dozen pieces under Chen's byline implicating the Hong Kong- and Shenzhen-listed Zoomlion in schemes to exaggerate its profits and manipulate markets.
Chen said he regretted the losses he caused Zoomlion and its shareholders. He also apologised to his family.
The All-China Journalists Association, which had earlier expressed support for Chen, issued a statement yesterday faulting him for "seriously violating journalistic professional ethics and harming the media's credibility". It said the New Express should also be held accountable.
Meanwhile, internet users circulated screen grabs of the CCTV report, which appeared to show the name of Zoomlion rival Sany in the statement Chen signed for police.
The statement also showed the names of Zhu Zongwen and Wang Zhong, whom internet users identified as a reporter for the 21st Century Business Herald and a business editor of New Express, respectively.
Neither Zoomlion nor Sany returned calls for comment. New Express also declined to comment.
Some feared that the confession had been coerced, as Chen was the latest high-profile figure to publicly admit wrongdoing on national television before any formal charges had been filed.
Videotaped confessions by prominent Sina Weibo commentator Charles Xue Biqun and British corporate investigator Peter Humphrey have also been aired on national television in recent weeks.
People commenting on Sina Weibo were particularly concerned about Chen's shaved head and prison jump suit because he has not yet been charged with any crime.
Prominent rights lawyer Si Weijiang compared the CCTV broadcast to a pre-trial judgment.
"Any police investigation material before a court hearing is considered to be a state secret and only lawyers are allowed to approach suspects or the plaintiff," Si said. "Who gave CCTV the right to violate these legal procedures?
"There are many unresolved queries," Si said, citing reports Changsha police had arrived to detain Chen in a Mercedes allegedly owned by Zoomlion.
Qiao Mu , a media expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University, believed the New Express shared much of the blame, even though "compensated journalism" - in which reporters trade stories for cash - was a common practice on the mainland.
"How can you blame the reporter alone when the paper published over a dozen problematic stories?" he said.
He also questioned the ethics of CCTV.