A party newspaper in Heilongjiang province is under mounting pressure to tell the truth about the authenticity of an award-winning photo it published three years ago amid fresh accusations the image was a fabrication.
The picture - which earned first prize at the prestigious China International News Photos Contest in 2005 for Zhang Liang , a veteran photographer at the Harbin Daily - showed a veterinarian vaccinating pigeons in front of Sophia Cathedral in Harbin in June 2004.
However, the resemblance of two pigeons in the background - which were almost identical in shape, size and posture - prompted internet commentators and professional photographers to claim the image had been doctored.
There has been no independent verdict about the authenticity of the photo, but the accusations are the latest controversy to hit the mainland media, which has been battered by a string of hoax news reports and photo fabrications.
The Daqing Evening News, also in Heilongjiang, apologised earlier this week after a staff photographer was forced to admit that his 2006 award-winning photo of Tibetan antelope passing underneath a railway bridge was constructed from two photos.
The challenge to Zhang's photo was not entirely new as questions were raised nearly a year ago. However, doubts resurfaced this week, even though Zhang told the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily he had done nothing wrong.
Zhang and management at the Harbin Daily were not available for comment yesterday. Hu Ying - executive deputy director of the China Photojournalists Society, which organised the 2005 photo contest - said it did not have evidence to show the photo was fake and had not sought third-party verification.
Xu Lin , a photo editor for China Photo Press, was among the first of several photographers to question the Harbin Daily photo.
Xu said his analysis showed that the photo was 'almost 100 per cent' a fabrication and that a pigeon in the top-left corner was likely to have been doctored.
He said counterfeiting and forgery were everywhere on the mainland, 'but I'm particularly saddened by fabrications in the media as public trust is the lifeblood of the industry'.
He added that the photographer had to come up with evidence such as the original photograph because the public deserved the truth.
The truth behind the pigeon photo is unlikely to be substantiated soon, but the claims have underscored deep public mistrust on the mainland towards the establishment and the development of the internet as a conduit for people to vent their doubts and to challenge norms.
'The internet is like a public display platform offering little chance for [fabrications] to remain undiscovered,' said Zhan Jiang , a media professor from China Youth University for Political Sciences.
A similar campaign was also believed to be behind efforts to expose the Tibetan antelope photo published by the Daqing Evening News.