Shen Hao, former publisher of 21st Century Media Syndicate in 2008, at the award ceremony for the first 21st Century Gold Analyst Selection activity. (Imaginechina/Imaginechina)

He was an inspiration to a generation of Chinese journalists, a writer whose belief in the power of truth symbolized an era of optimism and idealism in the profession, an editor who helped direct a surge of investigative reporting meant to defend the helpless and hold the imperious to account.

But that era of optimism is barely a memory now. Shen Hao is accused of extortion for selling news coverage and was forced to make two humiliating confessions, broadcast on state television late last year. His supporters see the charges as a deliberate attack on one of the pioneers of independent journalism and on ideals that have been ruthlessly crushed by the Communist Party over the past decade.

There has not been a trial, and defendants have little or no rights in China’s politically controlled judicial system, so it may never be clear if Shen is innocent or guilty of the charges. But his televised confessions show how due process has already been abused and how the party has reached its own verdict in his case.

In 1999, Shen wrote a widely disseminated New Year’s editorial, the first for the progressive Southern Weekend newspaper, about how truth was precious and how facing it might embarrass some people but would strengthen China as a nation. Shen’s article is best remembered for his evocation of “a power capable of making us weep” — a power to keep pursuing “justice, kind-heartedness and conscience.”

Yet nearly 16 years later, it was a still-youthful-looking 43-year-old Shen who was seen wiping away tears and wearing handcuffs as he said that he had betrayed those ideals and “broken his promise” to the profession. “I was unable to restrain my own greed or resist all the lures out there,” he told police.

Shen, together with about 25 colleagues, is accused of running “a massive extortion racket,” in which reporters would allegedly blackmail companies into signing lucrative advertising deals in return for dropping negative coverage.

In a country where forced confessions form the backbone of much police work, it is hard to evaluate Shen’s innocence or guilt. But friends and colleagues say the fact that he has been singled out for a practice that has become commonplace in Chinese journalism — a practice that has its roots in the triple pressures of censorship, corruption and commercial survival faced by many journalists — shows that Shen simply made too many powerful enemies in his pursuit of the truth.

“I was very shocked and also sad,” said Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication, who wrote a recent column lamenting Shen’s case. “A lot of my students used to regard him as an example. It is a heavy blow to a new generation of news reporters.”

Shen has already been condemned by China Central Television and state news agency Xinhua — ironic considering what Hu and other experts describe as high levels of corruption within state media itself.

Colleagues describe Shen as a serious man of few words but of quiet conviction. With his shoulder-length hair and sideburns and a poster of revolutionary leader Che Guevara in his office, he was described by one colleague as a “hipster and intellectual,” a talented poet and a man more interested in talking about arts and literature than money.

Experts suspect that Shen has been singled out for prosecution because he represented a form of reporting that had long been a thorn in the Communist Party’s side. His fall from grace, they argue, is just another targeted attack on the idea of an independent news media.

“Corruption is absolutely endemic in Chinese media, and it has only gotten worse in the past five years,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “Part of the reason is the pressure the media is under. In the case of Shen Hao, you have to ask what their other agenda is, why this case has been pursued so aggressively with him made a very public example of.”

China’s economic reforms saw press controls relaxed in the 1990s and subsidies to newspapers withdrawn. State-run media outlets were expected to turn a profit. That meant newspapers had to deliver stories that people actually wanted to read, including stories that held the government to account.

But it was not easy for journalists to balance the contradictory demands of profit and power. Propaganda department officials would often block stories or demand that offending journalists be demoted or sacked.

A time of possibilities

As the new era dawned, Shen, who graduated with a degree in Chinese language and literature from the relatively liberal Peking University, joined Southern Media Group in 1992 as an idealistic 21-year-old.

Less than seven years later, he was to write that famous editorial, only to be fired later that same year because his reporting had angered a powerful local official.

But he bounced back spectacularly in 2001, when he founded the 21st Century Business Herald as part of Southern Media Group.

It was an immediate success, turning a profit within a year. Shen followed up by founding a sister paper, the 21st Century World Herald, in 2002, to report on events around the world “with a global perspective and from a Chinese viewpoint.”

It was a time, colleagues recall, that seemed replete with possibilities.

“At that time, a job with the Southern Media Group meant a job with dignity, a lot of social value and a pretty competitive salary,” recalled a former colleague who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I really felt I could make full use of my talent, because I had so many excellent people around me.”

The training, the former colleague said, stressed “professionalism” above all else.

But in 2003, even as Chinese media were hitting a high-water mark with groundbreaking investigations and hard-news coverage, the 21st Century World Herald was closed down after just 41 weekly issues. It had crossed the line in its political coverage once too often.

Months later, Cheng Yizhong, a star editor at an affiliated paper, was jailed along with two colleagues on charges of corruption.

A steady crackdown followed.

Shen moved away from the journalistic front line and onto the business side. But that was, if anything, more of a minefield. Corruption under then-President Hu Jintao ran rampant through every branch of officialdom, and flourished in the media, too.

“Newspapers had tried to go out in the market, be credible, attract readers, but that was totally perverted by power,” Bandurski said. “If you write an investigative piece about local officials, you know it won’t run. So it makes sense to take a payout in advance not to run the piece. It is not very far from that to the point where you are doing investigative reports for profit.”

At the same time, the Internet and social media presented a new challenge to the newspapers’ business model, just as they have in the West. Profits were harder to come by, just as power was harder to confront, and corruption filled the gap.

‘A public enemy’

Today, newspapers often team with public relations companies to run “paid news” while simultaneously taking money for real reporting that doesn’t run. Many leading journalists have simply left the profession.

The 21st Century Business Herald had stepped on many powerful toes in its reporting of the business dealings of China’s Communist elite. As Bloomberg News and the New York Times discovered when they ran into trouble for reporting on the wealth of elite families in 2012, that is one of the touchiest subjects in modern China.

“You can’t imagine how much pressure we were under,” Shen’s former colleague said.

Cheng put it this way in an e-mail: “You can say the 21st Century group became a public enemy of Chinese interest groups representing the powerful and the rich.”

Police arrested six employees of the Web site and two public relations executives in early September.

Shen insisted that the newspaper would not tolerate any violation of journalistic integrity — and argued that there was no proof that his colleagues broke the law.

But the pressure was clearly beginning to show, as his wife, Jiang Hua, later told a local Web site. “For years he had never cried,” she said. “But on Sept. 10 or 11, he came home at midnight, spoke to me quietly and cried. He was very worried about his colleagues who had been arrested. He was being interrogated by the police constantly.”

On Sept. 25, Shen was taken into custody. The following day, Jiang stood in a lonely vigil outside his former office, in protest.

Now, in a final act of irony, China’s propaganda officials have banned any sympathetic reporting of Shen’s story.

“The case of the 21st Century group showed that journalism has been annihilated in China,” Cheng said. “The ruling party has won the war it started in 2003, completely.”

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.