A Chinese newspaper has issued its second front page plea in as many days calling for the release of one of its journalists who was arrested for exposing alleged corruption at a state-owned company.
Chen Youngzhou is being held on charges of "damaging the reputation of a business" after writing a series of reports in the New Express tabloid claiming the Zoomlion construction company artificially inflated its profits.
Zoomlion, which is listed on the Hong Kong and Shenzhen stock exchanges, reported $7.6 billion in profits last year. Since Chen's arrest began making international headlines Wednesday, Zoomlion's shares fell nearly 6 percent.
Police have told state media that Chen fabricated facts about Zoomlion's finances in the stories, which were written between September of last year and August, 2013. Few other details have been given on the charges. The paper says it has investigated the reporting and only found one minor factual flaw.
The case has threatened to become a wider concern for authorities, as many Chinese Internet users have expressed sympathy for Chen. The official Global Times said Thursday the publicity department of the Communist Party's powerful Central Committee and its main anti-corruption body are now involved in the case.
In a rare protest against government policies, the New Express on Wednesday published a sharply worded editorial slamming police for arresting Chen, and claiming there was no evidence he committed a crime.
On Thursday, the small paper, located in the southern city of Guangzhou, continued its protest with a large headline stating: "Again We Ask For His Release." The article said the case should be handled under the law and that journalists should not be detained without charges first being laid out.
A New Express worker contacted by VOA said all employees were told not to speak with foreign news media, for their own safety. The employee declined to be identified or to provide any further details.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media called Chen's detention a test of the media's role in China.
An editorial in the Global Times, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, on Thursday called for Chen's case to be dealt with "according to the law," but stressed that the key issue is whether his report was accurate.
A separate report in the Times, which often reflects government viewpoints, quoted analysts who defended Chen, arguing that even articles with mistaken facts should be protected by the law.
This is not the first time that New Express articles have aroused controversy. Another of its reporters was arrested earlier this year after calling for an official investigation of the activities of a senior government official in the megacity of Chongqing, in southwestern China.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to end widespread corruption in the ruling Communist Party, but he also is seen as a leader of those authorities who want to arrest and prosecute any individual involved in exposing official corruption.
A recently enacted party rule calls for up to three years' imprisonment for Internet users whose "defamatory" messages are widely reposted online.
Since Chinese newspapers are tightly controlled by the state, explicit protests against government policies are rare.
In one case earlier this year, staff at the relatively outspoken Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou went on a weeklong strike to protest government censorship. That incident grew into a nationwide online protest against China's strict media censorship, with celebrities and other public figures speaking out in support of the newspaper.
(This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin service.)