Zhao was detained in Shanghai just days after an article in The New York Times citing unnamed sources reported the retirement plans of Jiang Zemin, who handed over his final leadership post of chairman of the Central Military Commission on September 19. Before his detention, Zhao told friends that authorities had been in contact with him, according to the New York-based human rights organization Human Rights in China; he feared that authorities may have thought that he was one of the anonymous sources in the story.
But New York Times foreign editor Susan Chira has said that Zhao, who worked as a researcher and not as a reporter, did not provide any state secrets to the newspaper.
In China, leaking state secrets is punishable by execution.
"Zhao Yan's arrest and continuing detention are alarming and unjustified," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. "Zhao's work as a news assistant for the New York Times has not violated state security, and his continued detention has a chilling effect on all journalists in China."
Before joining the New York Times bureau in May, Zhao was a reporter on farming issues for Zhongguo Gaige (China Reform) magazine. He also worked as an activist and advocate for peasants facing abuse at the hands of corrupt officials.
In an apparent attempt to consolidate central control, Chinese authorities have cracked down on coverage and criticism of the government in recent months by shuttering online and print media establishments and harshly punishing dissenters.