Human rights advocates are accusing the Chinese government of penalizing the newspaper that broke the story about China's first recent case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

The newspaper is the Southern Metropolis Daily, a popular tabloid-style publication in China's Guangdong Province.

A human rights group and media sources in Guangdong say police agents have recently called some members of the paper's staff, including the editor-in-chief, for questioning after staff wrote about controversial issues including SARS and corruption.

Zeng Wenqiong, a reporter with the newspaper, was the first to write about the case of a 32-year-old television producer who became China's first confirmed SARS patient this year. She told Reuters news agency this week she has been taken off the beat.

Frank Lu, of the Hong-Kong based Center for Human Rights and Democracy, says he believes the moves are part of an official strategy to pressure local media not to report things that could make the government look bad. "If any newspapers dare to report some things that the government doesn't like, they can use this way to scare those newspapers, scare those editors, scare those journalists," he said. "This is a serious thing."

The government has not been openly critical of the coverage given to the latest SARS case by foreign media.

At a regular briefing Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said the government believes it deserves positive coverage for reporting the first case of SARS soon after it was clinically confirmed.

Mr. Kong says any journalist who does his or her work objectively will regard the government's efforts as effective. He says the government is confident of the way it has controlled the reappearance of SARS.

China came under widespread international criticism in 2003 when it first denied the appearance of SARS and later tried to cover up the actual number of infections.

The concealment was blamed for SARS' rapid and devastating spread. Some 8,000 people were infected worldwide and more than 770 died - most of them in China.

International organizations have since praised China for pledging to quickly notify the public of any new cases.