In a case that has attracted nationwide attention in China, three journalists accused of writing stories critical of a local government in Gansu province have surfaced after a two-week disappearance. But now they are facing charges of extortion.
The incident in the small city of Wuwei went viral after a letter -- reputedly written by the management of the Lanzhou Morning Post, a newspaper that employs one of the journalists -- began circulating, accusing the Wuwei government of intimidating journalists and fabricating criminal charges.
Among the detainees was Morning Post reporter Zhang Yongsheng, who has written several muckraking stories in recent years. In 2014, he uncovered how a criminal ring was forcing middle school and elementary school students to sell their blood. In 2011, he revealed how the police helped a criminal to escape from custody.
Zhang went missing Jan. 7 after he went to report on a blaze apparently caused by a mismanaged firefighting exercise. His family said that after the fire broke out, Zhang received a text message from a local propaganda official in Wuwei warning him not to cover the incident.
According to the letter, Zhang expressed concern to his colleague on the morning of his disappearance, saying that "the local propaganda office really wants me out of Wuwei." (Morning Post management has denied penning the letter that circulated online.)
After Zhang went missing, local police said that he had been detained for "soliciting a prostitute" at a spa center.
But now, Wuwei officials say the three journalists were "leveraging their roles as reporters and providers of public oversight to repeatedly extort other people's property." No other details have been made public.
Though the police continue to hold Zhang in detention, the other two reporters -- who work for other Lanzhou newspapers and are based in Wuwei -- were released on bail Jan. 25.
China's government exercises strict control on its domestic media. The country ranked 176 out of 200 on the Reporters without Borders 2015 Press Freedom Index.
But even the state press appears to have found the Wuwei case objectionable. China Daily, the country's leading English-language mouthpiece, published an editorial Monday saying: "It is not just the fate of three journalists that the public is concerned about. They also want to know whether local judiciaries can operate independent of local governments."
According to the Daily, the provincial government of Gansu has sent an investigative team to Wuwei to find out whether "the reporters have been framed for their critical reporting on local affairs."
In China, negative publicity is widely regarded as irksome by local officials, who fear bad press will jeopardize their chances of promotion.
In a report released last week on China's media climate, the International Federation of Journalists said that "journalists and crews in the field were hampered by physical harassment, especially when reporting on man-made disasters that showed the authorities had failed to ensure public safety."
The Wuwei government's handling of the journalists has roiled Chinese Internet users.
Many users of WeChat, a popular instant-messaging app, have shared what they say is the cellphone number of Huo Ronggui, the party secretary of Wuwei. Messages on WeChat encouraged people to call Huo and "demand an answer" as to why the journalists were detained. The number is now out of service.
Meanwhile, on the news-sharing platform Sohu, netizens posted multiple pictures of Huo sporting different watches, suggesting that he may have been involved with corruption. In 2011, an official in Shaanxi province was arrested after people posted pictures of him wearing 11 different luxury watches. The official was sentenced to 14 years in prison for accepting bribes.
In the Wuwei case, China Daily criticized "the covert way" local police detained the reporters, and said the two-week delay in announcing their arrest had provided "fodder for conspiracy theories."
Authorities, the paper added, need to "come clean as soon as possible."
Staff writer Julie Makinen and special correspondent Chuan Xu contributed to this report.
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