New York, January 28, 2016--Chinese authorities should immediately release Zhang Yongsheng, a reporter for the state-owned Lanzhou Morning Herald, who has been imprisoned since January 7, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. On Monday, authorities accused Zhang of extortion.
The announcement, published on the website of the Liangzhou district government of Wuwei Municipality, said Zhang "used his position as a journalist and in the name of public opinion supervision, to repeatedly extort money and goods from others." According to news reports that cited a letter purportedly from Zhang's newspaper, which is based in Lanzhou, Gansu province, police initially said the journalist had been arrested for prostitution but later changed the charge to extortion.
The day after Zhang's arrest, Luo Huansu, a reporter from the Lanzhou Evening Herald, (a separate outlet to Zhang's), and Zhang Zhenguo, a reporter from the Western Business Herald, were detained by Wuwei police and accused of being his accomplices, according to news reports. Luo was charged with extortion and Zhang Zhenguo is still under investigation, authorities said. Both journalists were released on bail on Monday. Neither of those two journalists nor their newspapers have commented on the case publicly.
"The allegations of extortion against Zhang Yongsheng appear to be a punishment for his critical reporting, and the legal process seems to be highly irregular," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "We call on Chinese authorities to immediately release Zhang on bail while they complete their investigation."
Zhang's lawyers told reporters they filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office on January 20 after police repeatedly denied them access to the jailed journalist. When the lawyers were finally allowed to meet with Zhang on January 22, he denied the charges, the lawyers told the Chinese media. One of the lawyers told Caixin, a Beijing-based business magazine, that he was ordered by authorities not to speak to the media.
An open letter dated Monday and published on the news website Phoenix with a Lanzhou Morning Herald byline said the newspaper denied Zhang was involved in extortion. It said he had been repeatedly threatened for his critical reporting and that people mentioned in Zhang's articles had tried to influence his reporting by offering him cash and other goods. Zhang had told his employer that an official from the Liangzhou Public Security Bureau had called him to demand that an article on the corruption trial of the deputy head of the district be deleted. According to the open letter, Zhang told the official he could not delete it. In another instance, after Zhang refused to stop an article being published about a suicide, Liangzhou police threatened him and said, "Young man, you are from Wuwei. You do this [to us], you wait [and see.]" Before his arrest, Zhang had frequently told one of his colleagues "the Wuwei police are after me," the open letter said.
In a statement published Thursday EST on its official Weibo account, the Lanzhou Morning Herald denied any involvement in the open letter.
The police allowed Zhang's wife to visit him in prison, which is in violation of Chinese law, according to the open letter attributed to the Lanzhou Morning Herald. During the meeting, Zhang asked his wife to replace the current lawyers with a new one. Zhang's wife was quoted as saying she believes Zhang said this under pressure.
Corrupt practices among journalists are pervasive in China, according to experts on Chinese media. Dozens of journalists, from both the commercial media and state media, have been charged with bribery or extortion-related crimes in the past couple of years. Given the lack of transparent due process and the scarcity of independent investigative reporting in China, it is difficult to determine whether there is any validity to the authorities' claims.
With at least 49 journalists in jail, China is the leading jailer of journalists in the world, according to CPJ's annual prison census.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This alert has been corrected and updated to reflect that the Lanzhou Morning Herald denied the authenticity of the letter.]