Journalists routinely face pressure and harassment in China in the course of their work. But every once in a while, an opportunity comes to push back — particularly if their work involves clear instances of negligence at the local level, where officials are not powerful enough to go head-to-head with national or regional media.

Such was the case this week as Caixin, one of China’s most respected news outlets, ran a story called “A Chronicle of Fear in a Quanzhou Hotel” (泉州酒店惊魂记), which detailed how the writer, journalist Zhou Chen (周辰), had been intimidated by local police in the city of Quanzhou, in coastal Fujian province, as she attempted to report on a chemical spill at a local oil port earlier this month.

In her account, Zhou said she had reached the scene of the spill soon after initial news of the accident emerged on November 4. But on November 11, as she continued to report the story, she alleges that she was tailed by a law enforcement officer. Later that night, she says, she was invited to the lobby of the hotel where she was staying to have a talk with the propaganda chief of Quanzhou’s port district — an invitation she declined.

Typically, such invitations in China can offer officials or others an opportunity to offer journalists payment to back off of a story, or to otherwise pressure them to drop their inquiries. Editors at media with a stronger sense of professionalism, such as Caixin, will generally instruct their reporters to avoid such traps.

Zhou Chen then wrote and filed her report on the spill, heading off to bed early. She was already in bed when she heard the sound of a keycard opening the hotel room door. Four men wearing police uniforms barged into the room, saying they were from the local police station and asking to see her identification. They claimed they were conducting searches for prostitutes and their clients.

A bald-headed officer, says Zhou, instructed two of his deputies to search the toilet and balcony to see if anyone else was present. During the search, she says, they never produced any identification. After the men left, Zhou received a phone call from the hotel service desk apologising and saying that the police had demanded that they provide a copy of the keycard for Zhou’s room, and confirming that they had not demanded keycards for any rooms other than Zhou’s.

On Monday, following publication of Zhou’s account, a communications official from the Public Security Bureau in Quanzhou said that the allegations made by Zhou Chen were under investigation. Yesterday, the Quanzhou Public Security Bureau issued a formal apology and said four officers were under investigation for overstepping their authority and causing “a negative social impact.” Three of these were “auxiliary officers,” the bureau said, meaning that they were charged with assisting police. The bureau also said that a deputy bureau chief was facing disciplinary measures.