BEIJING Chinese journalists probing a bridge collapse that killed dozens of people said they were harassed and beaten by local thugs, exposing the state-run media's see-saw struggle between control and candour.
The reporters were interviewing grieving families of those who died when the near-finished Fenghuang bridge, in the southern province of Hunan, fell into a heap of rubble. By late on Thursday, the number of known dead had reached 41 and was sure to rise as searchers accounted for dozens missing.
State television has trumpeted President Hu Jintao's call for an inquiry into the accident and punishment of anyone culpable. But according to an Internet account backed by reporters involved, media seeking answers found they were far from welcome.
Five reporters, including one from the ruling Communist Party's own People's Daily, were interviewing distraught relatives of the dead when seven or so men burst in, according to China Public Opinion Monitor, a Web site that reports on human rights complaints (www.383983.cn).
"The reporters demanded that they show their identification but were refused, and then suddenly one of the men kicked (People's Daily reporter) Wang Weijian in the stomach," the account said, adding that journalists from the China Youth Daily and Southern Metropolitan Daily were also kicked and punched.
Three journalists who said they were present told Reuters on Friday that the Internet report was accurate, but refused to elaborate, citing government wariness of contact with foreign media. They also asked that their names not be used.
"Read the report and you'll know what happened," one said. "I really don't want to say any more."
Two said they were roughed around for several minutes but did not suffer serious injuries.
China has promised that before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics foreign journalists can work without many of the usual restrictions. But the government has made no such concessions to its own reporters, and in the lead-up to a major party congress later this year some controls have been tightened.
Police in Fenghuang refused to comment on the beating report. A propaganda official there said she knew of the matter but declined to say anything else.
The confrontation is the latest in a long-running battle within China over how much scope journalists should have to scrutinise officials unaccustomed to outside questioning.
Senior officials have said the government must allow public oversight to counter abuses.
But they do not want to undermine their own control, and local officials -- worried their political prospects could be threatened -- are often outright hostile to reporters.
During the beating, two other reporters present called police, but when officers arrived they stopped the journalists leaving and took them to a local station, the account said.
A local propaganda official came and eventually apologised to the reporters from the powerful People's Daily and a magazine run by the official Xinhua news agency.
But he showed no patience with reporters from lower ranked but more adventurous publications, including the Southern Metropolitan Daily, a popular tabloid.
"You're all reporting illegally, and we'll take measures against your illegal reporting," the official said.
This week the government announced a crackdown on "fake news" and bogus reporters -- vague terms that may be used to put reporters on a tighter leash -- after a reporter was jailed for fabricating a story about steamed buns stuffed with cardboard.
Police in east China's Shandong province charged a local journalist with blackmail, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said on Friday, saying that the reporter Qi Chonghuai was being victimised for reporting on official corruption.
Officials have said Qi and Ma Shiping, a photographer he worked with who was detained in June, were bogus journalists, the advocacy group said in an emailed statement.
"He dared to say what the accredited reporters did not dare write -- he dared to say the truth," a former colleague said of Qi, according to the group.
Shandong officials could not be contacted late on Friday to respond to the claims.
(Additional reporting by Vivi Lin)