By Dan Martin
BEIJING, Thursday 29 July 2010 (AFP) - Police in eastern China on Thursday quashed an arrest order for a fugitive graft-busting journalist following a public outcry, in an apparent rare victory for media freedom.
Qiu Ziming had become a cause celebre after his investigative reports on alleged improprieties by a listed company landed him in a nationwide police most-wanted database on suspicion of slander.
Qiu, 28, a reporter with the Economic Observer financial weekly, has been on the run for days after police in Zhejiang province put out an arrest notice.
But in a sudden about-face, the Zhejiang government said Thursday that police in the province's Suichang county who initiated the arrest order had been told to rescind it.
"The (provincial) Public Security Bureau has ordered the Suichang Public Security Bureau to withdraw the Qiu Ziming criminal detention decision and apologise to him," a notice on the provincial news website said.
It said the detention order "did not meet statutory requirements".
Qiu, who is based in the Economic Observer's Shanghai bureau, published reports in June detailing alleged improprieties such as insider trading by a major battery manufacturer based in Zhejiang.
The company, Kan Specialties Material Corporation, based in Suichang and listed on the stock exchange of Shenzhen in southern China, has denied the charges and accused Qiu of slander, initiating the police action.
But Qiu has continued to defend his innocence and demand justice in defiant entries on his Weibo account, a Twitter-like service offered by leading portal Sina.com.
"What I reported is the truth," Qiu said in an entry Wednesday, adding that he had "iron-clad" evidence of the company's wrongdoing and did not fear police.
"This is not over. I will get an apology from the Suichang police," he said.
China's media is tightly controlled but gradually becoming more aggressive in exposing corporate and official malfeasance. However, particularly bold reporters who offend powerful forces risk being muzzled or even jailed.
Since going on the run several days ago, Qiu has garnered broad support on the Internet, with his Weibo account gaining 8,000 "followers" and his case generating sympathetic media coverage.
An online poll organised by Sina.com, which drew more than 33,000 responses, found that 86 percent of users viewed the police pursuit of Qiu as "unlawful" and that 98 percent trusted his reports on Kan Specialties.
The Economic Observer -- an independent weekly newspaper considered one of the most respected financial publications in China -- last month put out a bold statement defending Qiu and criticising authorities.
"We strongly condemn the use of public power to suppress and threaten the personal safety of media professionals," it said.
Chinese Internet users have become a potent force in exposing official abuses and pressuring authorities to back down from some unpopular decisions.