On October 17, 2014, Chen, who wrote a series of reports critical of a state-controlled construction equipment maker, and Zhuo, who co-wrote some of the articles, were found guilty of defamation and bribery, and accused of fabricating and spreading falsehoods to damage the business reputation of others, according to the official Xinhua news agency. Zhuo, a freelancer, was sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined 10,000 yuan (US$1,600). Chen, whose trial attracted media coverage, was sentenced to 22 months in jail with a 20,000 yuan fine, (US$3,200).
The case involved reports on the finances of one of the country’s largest construction machinery companies, Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Company, according to The New York Times.
Chen, a journalist for the state-run New Express newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou, had written 15 articles, published between September 2012 and June 2013, that questioned Zoomlion’s revenue and profit figures, news reports said. Chen alleged that the company, which is partly owned by the Hunan government, had exaggerated profits and manipulated the market, reports said. Zoomlion denied the allegations. International and local media reports alleged that Chen might have been writing about Zoomlion at the request of the company’s hometown competitor, Sany Group Co. Ltd., which allegedly sought to discredit Zoomlion by saying the larger company engaged in sales fraud, exaggerated profits, and used public relations to defame its competitors. Zoomlion denied the allegations, and Sany Group denied planting the stories.
Chen was summoned to a Guangzhou police station on October 18, 2013, and was taken into custody by police officers visiting from Changsha, 700 kilometers (435 miles) to the north. Four days later, police announced his arrest on their official Sina Weibo microblog, saying he was being held on criminal charges of damaging commercial reputation, the Hong Kong-based China Media Project reported.
After failed attempts to secure Chen’s release behind closed doors, The New Express published a front-page appeal in October 2013 for his release. It was one of the few times a Chinese newspaper has openly demanded the release of one of its journalists. The paper’s editors said they had thoroughly vetted Chen’s stories and found only one factual error.
However, on October 26, 2013, Chen appeared in handcuffs on the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) and confessed to having filed false information in exchange for money. He said the stories on Zoomlion had been written by someone else, according to news reports. The state-run CCTV broadcast did not name the intermediary who allegedly bribed Chen or offer any evidence or details on the amounts received. According to Caixin magazine, a close-up shot of Chen’s signed confession aired during the CCTV interview clearly showed the name of Zoomlion’s chief competitor, Sany Heavy Industry Co., a subsidiary of the Sany Group.
The New Express subsequently published an apology. The national journalists’ rights organization All-China Journalists Association, which had pledged to investigate Chen’s arrest, later condemned his actions, a Hong Kong University-based research group, China Media Project, reported.
News reports offered few details about Zhuo’s role in the Zoomlion coverage or about his arrest. He did not appear on CPJ’s 2013 prison census because the organization was unaware of his case.
As of late 2014, it was unclear where either journalist was being held.