New York, July 19, 2011--Reports that the Beijing-based China Economic Times has closed its investigative news unit are a concerning sign that pressure is mounting on hard-hitting media outlets in China, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Xie Baokang, assistant to the Times' editor, told Agence France-Presse that the investigative department had been "dismantled." Reporters from the team, including the veteran journalist Wang Keqin, have been moved to different departments, Xie told AFP.
The reasons for the move are not clear, but the lack of transparency surrounding the restructuring is characteristic of the behind-the-scenes political pressure that governs China's media. Journalists are often fined, dismissed, or demoted in retaliation for outspoken reporting and warned not to publicize the penalty, according to CPJ research.
The news agency said both Xie and Wang Keqin refused to comment on the reasons for the change. Wang has not commented about the issue on his widely read blog.
Wang is an outspoken journalist, one accustomed to threats and harassment. "In terms of personal safety, what investigative journalists fear most is the local mafia, hooligans, and thugs, and also the police," he said at a May 2007 lecture at Princeton University. Wang said that he is regularly threatened for his investigative work around the country and in March 2007 unidentified attackers beat him with an iron rod while he was reporting in Shanxi province.
Journalists and online writers in China have faced increasingly heavy restrictions this year amid authorities' fears of an Arab Spring-style uprising and anticipated leadership changes in 2012.
"This apparent crackdown of the China Economic Times' investigative section is a loss for China," said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "The shutdown carries the hallmarks of a political measure to curb a leading news outlet's reporting that found disfavor within the government."
The Times' status as one of China's leading sources of firsthand investigations has caused friction in the past. Bao Yueyang, the paper's former chief editor and publisher, was reshuffled to a different post in May 2010. Local journalists told CPJ they believed Bao's decision to publish Wang's reporting on allegedly unsafe child vaccines in Shanxi province was a factor in that decision.
China Economic Times is published by the State Council's Development Research Center. The CMP reported that a political leader had visited the newspaper on Monday morning to speak to staff about "political struggle," citing a Sina microblog post by the Media Project's director, Qian Gang.