Chinese newspaper The New Express, based in Guangzhou, has published a rare front-page plea for the release of one of its journalists held by police.
The New Express called for Chen Yongzhou, who was detained last week, to be freed.
The paper said Chen Yongzhou’s detention was linked to reports he wrote about a part state-owned construction equipment company based in Hunan.
Police in Hunan have confirmed the journalist has been detained for “damage to business reputation”.
Earlier this year, Chen Yongzhou wrote several reports about Zoomlion, which is partly owned by the Hunan provincial government.
Zoomlion issued a statement after one New Express article, which alleged it had improperly accounted for sales, caused its share price to drop.
In a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange in late May, the company called the claims “false, groundless and misleading”.
The New Express led its article with a large three-character headline that read “Please Release Him”.
It said it had remained quiet so far because it feared Chen Yongzhou, who was detained on October 19, might be mistreated.
“We always thought that as long as we report responsibly then there would be no problem; and even in the event of a problem, we can publish corrections and apologise; if it is really serious, and we lose a court case, we will pay or shut down if we have to,” the editorial said.
“But the fact is, we are too naive. Chen Yongzhou had spent three days and three nights [in custody] before he saw a lawyer,” it added.
Like all Chinese newspapers, the New Express comes under strict state control, but it has nonetheless gained a reputation for investigative journalism.
“We are a small newspaper, but we have the backbone no matter how poor we are,” the paper said in its piece.
Recent years have seen sporadic clashes between Chinese media outlets and the authorities.
In January, journalists at the Guangdong-based Southern Weekly newspaper called for a propaganda chief to quit, after he 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.
There have been strong reactions to the news of Chen Yongzhou’s detention from users of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Around 30 lawyers have put forward their names to rally support for Chen Yongzhou and organized a virtual body – “Observation Group on the Detention of New Express Reporter Chen Yongzhou”. But the group has not disclosed any planned actions.
Media professionals, including journalists, are also using Weibo to join the call for police to release Chen Younzhou.
An editor from Dongfang Jinbao, a Henan-based newspaper, wrote: “Support New Express to safeguard the rights of its journalists. The bottom line of consensus in today’s society is rule of law. Why did the police arrest Mr. Chen? On what legal basis? Is it detention or arrest?”
Weibo users have also commented on the censorship of the news of Chen Yongzhou’s detention.
Another journalist from Henan province added: Within 10 minutes, all major internet portals like Sina, Sohu, Tencent and others have withdrawn the story from their home pages. This is a moment of shame for all (except a few) journalists in China.
Other users, however, are urging restraint, saying that it is not good to jump to any conclusions now.