The defence lawyer of detained political commentator Chen Jieren has hit back over a report about his case by official state news agency Xinhua, saying it subjected his client to trial by media.

An outspoken former journalist, Chen was detained in early July on suspicion of “extortion” and “running an illegal business.” Chen’s detention came after he wrote two articles alleging fraud and corruption by two Hunan officials in June.

Official state news agency Xinhua published a report on Thursday containing details of Chen’s alleged crimes from police sources. It also quoted Chen as apparently admitting regret over his behaviour.

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Chen Jieren appearing in police-recorded footage. Photo: Screenshot/CCTV.

The article accused Chen of profiting from his online influence and exaggerating the problems of local governments, writing negative articles about them and using their fear to extort money. It claimed he involved his wife and brothers in a “family-style” criminal operation. US-backed Radio Free Asia previously reported that they were detained around the same time as Chen under suspicion of “bribery.”

Multiple victims reportedly told Xinhua that they knew the articles were fake, but paid up to avoid trouble.

He was quoted as admitting to being a “classic ‘online hypocrite’” and an “online pest.”

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Screenshot showing that Chen’s WeChat channel is no longer available.

“I abused my online influence, betrayed my fans’ trust, and used words that appeared to be fair just to lie to netizens and lie to the people,” Chen appeared to say. “After deep reflection, I am deeply ashamed of the sanctimonious articles I wrote, and those false cries of justice.”

Similar stories claiming to expose Chen’s crimes were also posted by state tabloid the Global Times and state-funded outlet The Paper. State broadcaster CCTV, meanwhile, posted a report including police footage of Chen and his brother.

Presumption of innocence

Chen’s lawyer Tong Zongjin posted a statement on his Weibo account in response to Xinhua’s report.

It was since deleted from the social media network, but the text was posted online by activist blog Weiquanwang.

Tong wrote that the report violated the principle of presumption of innocence, and was tantamount to judging his client before he went to trial.

“Neither Xinhua News Agency nor the law enforcement officers who told Xinhua reporters about the case have the right to ‘hand down a judgment’ in a case that is still under investigation.”

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Tong Zongjin. Photo: Weiquanwang.

He accused Xinhua of violating the principle of objectivity, saying the article characterised the case based solely on the police’s one-sided explanation and did not include the viewpoints of the defence lawyers.

“Chen’s defence lawyers urge the authorities and national news services to set an example in the country’s work of promoting the rule of law. If the government sees rule of law as child’s play, then what can they expect of the public?” Tong wrote.

Before publishing his own articles on social media platforms as a freelancer, Chen worked for state-controlled media, including writing columns for China Youth Daily and the People’s Daily.

He had several hundred thousand followers on his social media accounts, according to CCTV. His WeChat channels are no longer available.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.