In a rare move, a group of Chinese journalists are openly confronting a top censor after a southern newspaper known for its edgy reporting was forced to change a New Year’s editorial calling for political reform into a tribute praising the Chinese Communist Party.
Sixty journalists from the Southern Weekly in Guangdong Province issued a complaint on Thursday over the last-minute changes that they said were made without the consent of the editorial department.
Another group of 35 former reporters from the newspaper went a step further on Friday, calling for the resignation of the provincial party propaganda chief Tuo Zhen (庹震) — whom they held personally responsible for the changes — while arguing that strong and credible news media are crucial for the country and even necessary for the ruling party.
“If the media should lose credibility and influence, then how can the ruling party make its voice heard or convince its people?” their letter said.
The party-run Global Times newspaper hit back with a defense of the government line, publishing an editorial saying the media cannot exist “romantically” outside the country’s political reality. The spat has become one of the hottest topics on China’s popular microblog site Sina Weibo.
Also apparently coming under pressure from Chinese censors was the Beijing-based pro-reform journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, whose Web site was no longer accessible in China on Friday. The journal regularly challenges censorship and recently published a New Year’s message advocating political reform.
Yang Jisheng (楊繼繩), the journal’s deputy director, said a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology department instructed the journal to shut down the Web site on Monday without providing a reason. By Friday, journal staff found the site blocked in China.
China’s media in recent years have become increasingly freewheeling in some kinds of coverage, including lurid reports on celebrities and sports figures. Still, censorship of political issues remains tight — although government officials typically claim there is no censorship at all — and the restrictions have drawn increasingly vocal criticism from journalists and members of the public.
Touching off the latest tussle was a New Year’s message to be published in the Southern Weekly on Thursday. The newspaper’s annual feature has become a popular and influential tradition because of its boldness.
For this year, the theme was to be constitutional rule. The original version called for democracy, freedom and adherence to the constitution — a reference to promises made in the 1982-era constitution to allow such reforms as independent courts and the rule of law. The country’s leaders have been reluctant to fulfill those pledges for fear of eroding their monopoly on power.
“The Chinese dream is the dream of constitutional rule,” the original version read, according to copies of the text widely disseminated online and confirmed in a telephone interview with its author, one of the newspaper’s editors, Dai Zhiyong (戴志勇).
That later was watered down as part of the newspaper’s usual vetting process with upper-level management — a process that is part self-censorship, part consultation with Chinese Communist Party censors. It was watered down further, Southern Weekly journalists say, without the knowledge of front-line reporters and editors on the evening before it hit the newsstand.