In September 2014, police in Shanghai detained a group of managers and editors of a leading business media company, the 21st Century Media Group, state press agency Xinhua reported.
The managers and editors were accused of extorting money from companies, particularly ones due to be listed on the stock market, in return for positive coverage on the news website 21st Century Net, daily newspaper 21st Century Business Herald and weekly magazine Money Week, all owned by the group, according to Xinhua. The publications have a focus on business news and a liberal political stance.
On September 29, 2014, Shen Hao, the president of the group, appeared on state television and stated that he had instructed his reporters to blackmail companies into signing advertising deals by threatening to write negative articles about them. Liu Dong and Luo Guanghui made similar televised statements, according to reports.
Former colleagues of Shen and experts on Chinese media told The Washington Post that the group was targeted because it represented independent reporting at odds with the Communist Party’s ideology.
According to the Post, Shen founded 21st Century Business Herald in 2001 after he was fired from the Southern Media Group for writing articles that angered a local official. When 21st Century Business Herald became successful, he founded several affiliated publications. In the following years, the group was put under steady pressure for crossing lines in political and financial reporting. In 2003, three editors were jailed and one of its papers was closed, the Post reported.
According to China Digital Times, the government ordered the media to not report on a poem written by Shen’s wife in protest of his arrest, and prohibited news outlets from portraying Shen and the other suspects positively.
The Hong Kong-based Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao reported that the crackdown on the 21st Century Media Group was retaliatory, as the group had been “outspoken and bold for years.” A contributor to the overseas Chinese-language news site Boxun told Radio Free Asia in August 2015 that the news outlet was being targeted because “these media outlets … don’t do as they are told.”
On October 11, 2014, prosecutors in Shanghai announced that 25 people involved in the extortion scheme had been arrested. On August 20, 2015, prosecutors announced that 30 people involved would stand trial for suspected “extortion” and “coercive business transactions,” according to state media.
The government did not publicize the full list of those charged. CPJ was able to confirm that at least nine are journalists.
Shen and his colleagues did not appear on CPJ’s 2014 prison census although they were in detention at the time. CPJ added the journalists in 2015 but removed them the following year after reviewing new details in their case.