The assault of a Chinese reporter by three police officers over his investigation into the deaths of two teachers has sparked a heated and rare public debate about the hostility and heavy restrictions faced by journalists in China.
The officers were suspended and detained for allegedly beating the reporter, surnamed Li, from the online outlet Jimu News, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the Bijie municipal government in the southern province of Guizhou.
The statement failed to quell the concerns of China's online community, with more than 5 million views of the attack by Friday. A number of state media outlets have also condemned brutality against journalists.
Li was assaulted on May 23 in Guizhou after arriving from Hubei province to follow up his earlier reporting on the teachers, who drowned in a local river after a sudden discharge by a power station upstream. Authorities are still investigating the incident.
In a widely circulated social media posting Xu Jiangqiao, an editor for Jimu News - which is affiliated to Hubei Daily - said "we stand firm to defend the rights of reporters and demand justice [for Li]".
"For the Bijie [municipal government] in Guizhou, it's important to give us reporters and the public an account [of the incident], make public the identity of the attackers and any persons who instigated the attack," Xu said.
State news agency China News Service also condemned the assault, saying in a commentary that it was "a blatant violation to journalists' normal duties of supervision [of officials] through public opinion".
One Weibo user wrote: "Why did the police officers follow the reporter? Who gave the order? This is the key!" Another said: "We should support the reporter and not let reporters covering social news feel frightened and disappointed."
Zhan Jiang, a retired professor with Beijing Foreign Studies University who closely tracks China's media issues, said the industry had faced growing hostility in recent years, with an increase in censorship and violence against reporters.
"[The media environment] is at a stage of suffocation. It's not that the supervision role of media has vanished but it is true that it has been greatly reduced," he said.
"Most investigative reporters have left the industry, especially those who specialise in 'hardcore' topics, and those who have stayed face huge difficulties in their reporting."
One challenge - highlighted by Li's case - is a ban on local media from reporting on "negative issues", which has prompted investigative journalists to cover stories in other provinces.
"Reporters are basically not allowed to report on local negative news … the governments cannot control media from other places - especially from other provinces - so this kind of incident happens if local officials feel offended," Zhan said.
In 2020, several journalists were beaten and barred from reporting in Henan province, central China, after travelling there from Chengdu, Beijing and Chongqing to report on the deaths of several children who were found buried in an illegal construction site.
Chu Chaoxin, a former reporter for Southern Weekly, was surprised that the latest incident had drawn such attention and public support for the reporter. "The media environment is not good, but it has received so much attention and that is unexpected to me."
Chu said there were reporters who still strove for media freedom, despite the hostility and challenges.
Media control has tightened since 2016, when Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered Communist Party outlets to toe the party's line on all major issues. In a high-profile visit to newsrooms, Xi said all reporting and commentaries should follow "the right direction".
According to Zhan, the harassment of journalists also reflected the pressure on local governments to maintain social stability above all else. Under such a mentality, the space for media could further diminish, he said.
Xi warned on Tuesday that China was facing more complex and difficult national security concerns. Chairing a meeting of the National Security Commission, he urged officials to be ready to face the challenges of "high winds and waves and even perilous storms".
China sits in 179th place on the Reporters Without Borders index - one spot above North Korea. The press freedom NGO describes China as "the world's largest prison" for journalists, with regular campaigns of repression against journalism and the right to information worldwide.