Chinese water bottler accuses Beijing newspaper of defamation

BEIJING (Reuters) - Nongfu Spring Company has accused a Beijing newspaper of fabricating dozens of stories criticising the quality of its widely sold bottled water, the Chinese state media reported on Tuesday.

The case is the second in recent weeks of a prominent company accusing a newspaper of libel and comes amid a government crackdown on the spreading of rumours.

Nongfu Spring, a leading bottled water firm based in the southern city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, alleged that the Beijing Times published 76 libellous stories about it over a period of about four weeks.

It took issue with an allegation by the popular tabloid that it had adhered to the province's clean water standards, which are lower than national requirements, even though Nongfu's water is sold nation-wide. The Beijing Times, the company said, had alleged that Nongfu's water was less pure than tap water.

"Seventy-six reports attacking Nongfu Springs were obviously of a premeditated and organised nature, turning public opinion virulently against Nongfu Springs," the company said on its official microblog published on Monday.

The company also said the newspaper fabricated support for its reports from Chinese regulators. It said it had taken legal action against the newspaper in a Beijing court.

The Beijing Times, reached by telephone, declined comment.

There was no way of checking whether such a number of articles about the company - on average nearly three per day - had been published by the newspaper or in its online editions.

Food safety woes have long plagued Chinese consumers. China plans to righten restrictions on publication of news about food safety issues to avoid alarming the public with untrue information, according to a draft law.

The conflict comes after a reporter at the New Express tabloid confessed on television to taking bribes for making up stories claiming construction equipment maker Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Company had falsified its sales and engaged in questionable accounting practices.

Zoomlion complained about the reports to the police, who arrested journalist Chen Yongzhou on defamation charges. Chen and the newspaper apologised and New Express's top editors were replaced.

The official English language China Daily said Nongfu's remarks came amid "a nationwide campaign by the government and news organisations to crack down on journalistic corruption and fabricated reporting" launched by authorities after Chen's case.