China journalist 'quit' newspaper after official pressure

BEIJING (AFP) - One of China's most celebrated journalists has left an outspoken newspaper, it confirmed on Thursday, after what two of his colleagues said was official pressure over a series of investigative reports.

Wang Keqin, whose decades of breaking stories have brought him nationwide fame, worked for the Economic Observer, a weekly known for its investigations, but left after a reporting team he led was shut down following government pressure.

China came 174th in a list of 179 countries ranked for press freedom in 2011-12 by advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, falling three places compared to the previous year.

The Economic Observer takes inspiration from Britain's Financial Times, and is known for its free-market stance on economic issues and relatively outspoken criticism of government policy.

But the paper's management asked Wang, who has more than 400,000 followers on Sina Weibo, a website similar to Twitter, to leave on Monday, according to an account confirmed by two journalists familiar with the matter.

He packed up his desk two days later, said the sources, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Trouble began to brew at the paper in August, after it published a dramatic report on the victims of floods which hit Beijing, killing at least 77 people.

Beijing government officials visited the paper's offices as a warning, said a reporter at the Economic Observer who also asked to remain anonymous.

An account posted online said: "Because of a report concerning Beijing's flood, the newspaper was almost shut down," adding that the investigative journalism unit run by Wang was shut down two months later, leaving him "without a team".

"Wang Keqin has quit," said a member of staff who answered the newspaper's main office number, refusing to give her name.

Wang was removed from his post as editor of the China Economic Times newspaper in 2010 after it published a report detailing how mishandling of vaccines may have led to children falling seriously ill and dying in Shanxi province.