Chinese state media have reported growing concern about a journalist detained last week by police in southern China for his coverage of alleged corruption at a state-owned company.
Chen Yongzhou disappeared last Friday in Guangzhou, where he had written a dozen articles for the New Express newspaper, criticizing the Zoomlion construction company. Zoomlion is based in the south-central Chinese city of Changsha.
Chinese media said police from Changsha detained Chen in Guangzhou on suspicion of damaging the reputation of a business. His whereabouts are unknown.
Empathy from Beijing
In reports published Thursday, official news agencies said the Chinese government's media regulator expressed "concern" about the fate of the journalist.
The General Association of Press and Publishing (GAPP) said it "firmly supports the media conducting normal reporting activities ... and firmly protects the legal rights of journalists."
Official news agencies also said the central government-backed All China Journalists Association called on the police to handle Chen's case "according to the law, guarantee the journalist's safety and prevent extorting confessions by torture."
U.S.-based right group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA it is watching the case with "great interest."
Central vs. local response
Speaking by phone from Princeton, New Jersey, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz said China's central government has a reason to sympathize with Chen and be critical of the local authorities who detained him.
"In this instance you are looking at a reporter who uncovered corruption, which the government says it's doing on its own anyway," said Dietz. "And you're seeing the criticism of this move come from the national organizations, from the central government, not from the local authorities who are more beholden to the company officials."
Dietz said the disappearance of Chen appears to be a case of a Changsha-based state-owned company colluding with Changsha police to retaliate against the Guangzhou newspaper.
Mainstream vs. online media
He also said China's central government media censors do not perceive Chen's reporting to be as much of a problem as the work of online 'citizen' journalists.
"Some journalists or writers take a step beyond doing journalism and start to approach activism or organizing people or building a bigger movement. Many of those being arrested are either Uighur or Tibetan bloggers, expressing Uighur dissatisfaction [with Chinese rule] or the Tibetan drive for independence or greater autonomy. That's what the government finds intolerable."
The New Express began protesting Chen's arrest on Wednesday, by publishing a front-page message in large characters saying "Release Him Please." It followed up on Thursday with a similar front-page plea, saying, "Again We Ask For His Release."
Acts of protest by Chinese newspapers are rare because state authorities often censor stories they fear could cause social instability.
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.
The U.S. government's Open Source Center says the newspaper's initial headline immediately drew attention from Chinese Internet users and became a hot topic on China-based microblogs.
Public show of support
The chief editor of respected Chinese financial magazine Caijing posted a message on Sina Weibo calling Chen's arrest "arbitrary" and saying it creates "fear" among fellow media workers.
CPJ's Dietz said local newspapers such as New Express are part of an institutional network of organizations that tend to have more freedom to operate than people realize.
"They have a dedicated readership, they meet a need, and I think you have a lot of pressure from the mainstream media consuming public, to deliver good reporting," he said. "And I think the government at some point has to respect that."
Chen's reports in New Express claimed that Zoomlion artificially inflated its profits, which the company said amounted to $7.6 billion last year.
Zoomlion is listed on the Hong Kong and Shenzhen stock exchanges. Its share price fell almost 6 percent in Hong Kong on Wednesday, when the New Express published its first protest message.
Accusations and denials
Chinese police have told state media that they believe Chen fabricated facts about Zoomlion's finances in the stories, written between September 2012 and August 2013. Zoomlion also denies Chen's allegations.
The New Express has said it investigated his reporting and only found one minor factual flaw.
A Thursday editorial in the Global Times, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, called for Chen's case to be dealt with "according to the law," but stressed the key issue is whether his reports were accurate.
A separate report in the Times, which often reflects government viewpoints, quoted analysts who defended Chen by arguing that even articles with mistaken facts should be protected by the law.
In another high-profile media rights case this year, staff at the relatively outspoken Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou went on a week-long strike to protest government censorship.
The January incident grew into a nationwide online protest against China's strict media controls, with celebrities and other public figures speaking out in support of the newspaper.
William Gallo contributed to this report.