President Hu Jintao has ordered a prompt investigation into the death of a Shanxi reporter who was beaten by thugs hired by the owner of an illegal coal mine.
The rare intervention by a state leader in a case of violence against a mainland journalist was echoed by other senior party officials, who called for proper handling of the investigation, the China News Service said.
The officials - including Communist Party ideology chief Li Changchun , Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang and his deputy, Bai Jingfu - sent orders for local authorities to 'investigate the case promptly and report the result quickly'.
Lan Chengzhang worked in the Shanxi bureau of the China Trade News. He died of a brain haemorrhage on January 11, a day after being attacked by club-wielding attackers during an interview at a mine in Datong's Hunyuan county.
Shanxi police say seven suspects have been arrested and three others are still at large. Of those arrested, mine operator Hou Zhenrun is accused of hiring eight thugs to beat Lan, his colleague Chang Hanwen and a driver outside the small mine, which police said had not obtained a full set of production licences.
Leaders of the northern coal-producing province, such as party secretary Zhang Baoshun and public security head Du Yulin, had ordered Datong police to severely punish those responsible and properly handle any resulting issues, the China News Service said.
Police have said Lan was not an accredited reporter because he did not have a permit. They also said he was aiming to extort money from mine owners by threatening to expose irregularities, a claim the China Trade News rejects.
The Beijing-based newspaper said Lan had yet to receive the permit because he was still on probation. But it admitted that he did not inform editors about his colliery investigation.
The incident has sparked discussions on the role of mainland reporters, and the growing phenomenon of people posing as reporters to blackmail businesses.
Zhan Jiang , a media analyst with the China Youth University of Political Sciences, said the case could have drawn concern from the leadership because of the outcry it had sparked on the mainland and overseas.
'This is an unprecedented gesture made by state leaders ... and, of course, this case has undermined the government's drive for a harmonious society,' he said.
Professor Zhan said more crackdowns on so-called 'fake journalists' could be possible because they had lowered the reputation of the nation's reporters.
'Employees at bureaus are known to be corrupt and part of their jobs is to bring in money for their papers,' he said.