Chinese legal rights activists are denouncing authorities for putting a detained journalist on state television to confess to making false accusations about a state-owned company.
The legal activists said Saturday's CCTV broadcast of the confession by Chen Yongzhou violated his right to due process, because he has yet to face any charges and remains under investigation.
Police from the south-central city of Changsha detained Chen in the southern city of Guangzhou on October 19, on suspicion of damaging the reputation of Changsha-based engineering company Zoomlion.
Chen wrote a series of articles about Zoomlion for Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express, alleging that the machinery maker inflated its profits. The CCTV footage showed him in detention in a Changsha prison, where he told an interviewer that he falsified the Zoomlion accusations in return for money and fame.
Trial by TV?
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Zhuang expressed outrage at the state television broadcast. Speaking to VOA by phone, he said it reminds him of how he faced accusations of falsifying evidence when he defended a mobster targeted by authorities in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
"Chinese state security laws expressly stipulate that during the investigative stage of a crime, all pieces of evidence are state secrets. How is it possible for public media to expose them?" asked Li.
"This is the same as when Chongqing authorities arrested me. They investigated many pertinent witnesses ... and forced them to acknowledge my guilt. After I had been detained for just three or four days, [the witness testimonies] all were published on CCTV, convicting me in the court of public opinion. This kind of practice is extremely wrong and also illegal."
Li was jailed in 2010 and released the following year.
Another Chinese rights lawyer, Si Weijiang, compared Chen's televised confession to pre-trial judgment. In an interview with Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Si asked "who gave CCTV the right to violate ... legal procedures?"
Chen's treatment questioned
Some Chinese Internet users expressed concern about marks that appeared on Chen's neck as he appeared on CCTV, and they speculated that he may have been pressured to confess through physical abuse. Others commented about how his hands appeared to make nervous gestures during the interview.
A spokesman for Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders said in a VOA interview that the broadcast "raises many questions" about the conduct of Chinese police. Benjamin Ismail said the group is trying to determine the facts.
"It would not be the first time the authorities are mistreating a journalist or blogger that they arrest," said Ismail. "There are many reports in which the authorities have beaten, and even in some cases for the most active or prominent cyber dissidents, tortured their prisoners. So it is something that we have to consider and to investigate to be sure that he wasn't the victim of beating and mistreatment by the authorities."
China's media regulator, the General Association of Press and Publishing (GAPP), said last week it "firmly supports the media conducting normal reporting activities ... and firmly protects the legal rights of journalists."
Media ethics under scrutiny
New Express published an apology about the Zoomlion case on Sunday, saying it failed to properly verify Chen's stories, and accusing him of violating journalistic ethics. It was an abrupt turnaround for the newspaper, which had defended Chen days earlier with two front-page appeals for his release.
The South China Morning Post quoted two unnamed New Express reporters as saying the government forced the Guangzhou newspaper to print the apology.
Whether the apology was forced or not, newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan said Chen's alleged misconduct has drawn attention to a wider ethics problem in the Chinese media. They said some journalists accept money from the subjects of their stories, either as a favor or through blackmail.
Reporters Without Borders' Ismail said corruption within the Chinese press is an issue that should be addressed. But he said the Chinese government first should address more serious threats to press freedom, such as harassment of journalists and censorship.
Ismail also said China should be willing to learn from best practices in other nations.
"When nongovernmental organizations like ours, who provide training including media ethics, are banned from entering the country and from providing the training to the journalists, how can you expect the development of a favorable environment for the press in China?" he said.
Dahai Han of VOA's Mandarin Service contributed to this report from Hong Kong. Michael Bond contributed from Washington.