China newspaper journalists stage rare strike

 

The BBC's Martin Patience said readers had been leaving flowers at the paper's offices in support

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Journalists at a major Chinese paper, Southern Weekly, have gone on strike in a rare protest against censorship.

The row was sparked last week when the paper's New Year message calling for reform was changed by propaganda officials.

Staff wrote two letters calling for the provincial propaganda chief to step down. Another row then erupted over control of the paper's microblog.

Hundreds of supporters of the paper gathered outside its office on Monday.

Some carried banners that read: "We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy".

"The Nanfang [Southern] Media Group is relatively willing to speak the truth in China so we need to stand up for its courage and support it now," Ao Jiayang, one of the protesters, told Reuters news agency.

Police were at the scene but "security wasn't tight", a former journalist of the Southern Media Group told BBC Chinese.

Analysis

If the Southern Weekly strike continues for any length of time, this scandal will create a major headache for China's new leader, Xi Jinping. Since he took the reins of power in Beijing, Mr Xi has generated kudos for his seemingly laid-back, open style of leadership. But the Southern Weekly uproar will force him to reveal his hand when it comes to censorship.

Will he support Tuo Zhen, the zealous propaganda chief who ignited the fracas at Southern Weekly by censoring its editorial message? The highly-popular newspaper has experienced run-ins with government censors in the past, but its stellar reputation has also allowed it to publish hard-hitting reports on a wide range of sensitive topics, from working conditions at Foxconn factories to the spread of HIV in China's rural areas.

Other major Chinese media outlets have been forced to toe the government line in recent years, leaving Southern Weekly unrivalled in its pursuit of top-level investigative journalism. If Mr Xi allows Southern Weekly's special status to be wiped away, he risks tarnishing his carefully cultivated reputation as a humble man of the people.

"They tried to ask those holding placards to show their ID cards," he said, adding that many had refused although "there wasn't much argument".

People were continuing to arrive by mid-afternoon when he left the scene, he added.

Southern Weekly is perhaps the country's most respected newspaper, known for its hard-hitting investigations and for testing the limits of freedom of speech, says the BBC's Martin Patience in Beijing.

Chinese media are supervised by so-called propaganda departments that often change content to align it with party thinking.

'Pressure'

It is thought that this is the first time that there has been a direct showdown between newspaper staff and party officials, correspondents say.

The row erupted after a New Year message which had called for guaranteed constitutional rights was changed by censors into a piece that praised the Communist Party.

In response, the newspaper's journalists called for the Guangdong propaganda chief's resignation, accusing him of being "dictatorial" in an era of "growing openness".

In two open letters 35 prominent former staff and 50 interns at the paper demanded Tuo Zhen step down, saying the move amounted to "crude" interference.

On Sunday night, a message on the newspaper's official microblog denied the editorial was changed because of censorship, saying the "online rumours were false".

The microblog updates, said to have been issued by senior editors, sparked the strike among members of the editorial team who disagreed with the move, reports say.

Almost 100 editorial staff members have gone on strike, saying the newspaper is under pressure from authorities.

Key figures

  • Southern Weekly - weekly paper with 1.6m circulation, based in southern province of Guangdong. Seen as influential and daring, but like all China's media, it answers to the ruling Communist Party.
  • Tuo Zhen - former economics journalist who took over as Guangdong propaganda chief in 2012, prompting increasing criticism of his heavy-handed measures
  • Huang Can, Southern Weekly's acting editor in chief
  • Hu Chunhua - newly appointed Communist Party chief of Guangdong province, and touted as a future leader of China. Will be tasked with resolving the stand-off.
  • Among those signing open letters opposing Tuo Zhen's actions are prominent legal scholar He Weifang, outspoken economist Mao Yushi and prominent blogger Li Chengpeng

"Not since the time of reform and opening up and the founding of China has there been someone like Tuo Zhen," Yan Lieshan, a retired Southern Weekly editor, also told Reuters.

Searches for "Southern Weekly" on the Twitter-like weibo are being blocked, reports BBCChinese.com editor Zhuang Chen, who adds there is huge public interest in the story.

Posts deemed to contain sensitive words such as the name of the paper or Tuo Zhen are being actively deleted.

In one post on Monday, swiftly removed, a former Southern Weekly reporter asked current editor-in-chief Huang Can: "If the newspaper no longer exists, where shall we pursue our ideals?

"Naive as I was, I firmly believed that it's always better to dance with shackles than to have no right to dance."

Some influential Chinese journalists have had their social media accounts deleted in recent weeks, Agence-France Presse news agency adds.

When asked about the Southern Weekly issue at a regular press briefing last week, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said that there is "no so-called news censorship in China".

How the case is handled is seen as a key test for Chinese officials, installed just two months ago in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, observers say.

In an editorial on Friday referring to the row, the state-run newspaper Global Times said: "The reality is that old media regulatory policies cannot go on as they are now. The society is progressing, and the management should evolve."

However it also pointed out that "no matter how the Chinese media is regulated, they will never become the same as their Western counterparts".

"The only way that fits the development of Chinese media is one that can suit the country's development path," it said.

 

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 83.

    As China develops and the middle class gets stronger, calls for more freedoms are inevitable. When will it be a fully-fledged democracy? 10-15 years I reckon.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 70.

    The voice of people should be the real path of development. The current situation of censorship in China is not sustainable way to run a country; fire could not be contained by paper. The value of free media and free speech are priceless, it is real bottom – up self- monitoring system! Please don’t just block it when it is not in your way.

  • rate this
    -11

    Comment number 51.

    As a Chinese, I'm very happy the way our government is now, we got new technology, faster growing economy. Please stop imposing the idea of "freedom" on us, no one can define it just by an election or one can say whatever he wants. I don't want to be back about 100 years ago when you find " dogs and Chinese are not allowed" in many restaurants, in fact I don't think people in china lack of freedom

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 17.

    Its up to China what information is blocked, it happens here albeit at a much lower level. However if China is to combat corruption it will eventually become apparent that press freedom is the way to go, even if it means some officials losing face, a very dreadful notion.

 
 

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