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Police raid china newspaper that reported sars { January 8 2004 }

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January 8, 2004
Police Raid China Newspaper That Reported New SARS Case

BEIJING, Jan. 7 - The police stormed the offices of one of China's most pugnacious newspapers and detained the top editor and six other officials in what many journalists regarded as retribution for aggressive reporting on a recent SARS case, employees said Wednesday.

The newspaper, Southern Metropolis Daily, was the first media outlet to report on a fresh outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in Guangzhou, the paper's hometown. The paper's investigation late last month prompted authorities to confirm that China had its first suspected case of SARS since the epidemic that petered out last summer.

Southern Metropolis Daily also came under heavy political pressure last spring when it exposed the beating death of a migrant worker in police custody, a case that eventually led the central government to abolish longstanding rules that allowed police to detain migrants at will.

Employees at the newspaper, part of the state-owned Nanfang Daily Press Group, said they were told that Cheng Yizhong, the chief editor, and six other executives of the paper's business department had been detained Tuesday and held for questioning on suspicion of financial crimes. Mr. Cheng was released Wednesday morning, the employees said.

The police declined to comment.

Authorities often investigate financial crimes at major state-owned companies only when political leaders have decided to punish people they consider disobedient or threatening. Employees said they interpreted the daytime detention of Mr. Cheng as a clear signal that the newspaper had exceeded the tight boundaries of press freedom and offended provincial officials.

Journalists say that efforts to curtail aggressive reporting at the paper may be part of a broader national clampdown on the press.

President Hu Jintao, who became the top state and Communist Party leader in China last year, was initially seen as more tolerant of press freedom than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Reporters and editors were enthusiastic about relative openness in the aftermath of last year's SARS epidemic, when top officials acknowledged that the cover-up of SARS and restrictions on media reporting may have contributed to the rapid spread of the disease.

But in recent months propaganda officials have been forbidding discussion of a range of sensitive issues, like political reform, and some media experts say the pendulum has swung back toward media repression.

Guangdong Province, a southern commercial center that was once seen as a haven for aggressive news organizations, has been in the forefront of the crackdown.

Two other publications of the Nanfang Daily Press Group, the weekly magazine Southern Weekend and the daily 21st Century World Herald, were widely read around China for their probing reports on the growing wealth gap, environmental problems, and high-level financial crimes. But both were severely censured last year for running articles that crossed political boundaries. The 21st Century World Herald was later shut down.

Southern Metropolis Daily earned a national reputation for tough reporting last spring, when it uncovered the beating death in police custody of Sun Zhigang, a college graduate who had traveled to Guangdong to find work. A court case that followed exposed widespread police abuses but also put the newspaper on shaky political ground, reporters said.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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