Chinese journalists back at work after “tacit agreement” with censors

After a week of protests and walkouts over a censored Near Year editorial, and rigorous calls for press freedom, journalists at China’s Southern Weekly have gone back to work. A normal edition of the paper was published last Thursday.

Outrage over the actions of Guangdong’s propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, seemed to reach another climax when The Beijing News, an offshoot newspaper of Southern Weekly, refused to print an editorial taken from the nationalistic Global Times blaming the protests on “activists outside the media industry” instead of on the censorship apparatus.

Dai Zigeng, the editor-in-chief, was said to have nearly resigned over the editorial. However, the BBC reported this:

When the BBC visited The Beijing News offices, the chief editor’s office manager and several of the paper’s journalists issued assurances that Mr Dai was still at work. Reports that protesters were camping outside The Beijing News offices also appeared to be untrue.

The newspaper printed the directive as a news item the next day.

Maria Repnikova, an academic who writes on state-media relations at Oxford University, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that so far the Southern Weekly affair has not helped to make any waves in press freedoms here because

These journalists [at Southern Weekly] did not confront the Central Publicity Department or the Party-state in Beijing. After a few days of protest, when they quietly settled the dispute with local authorities, some netizens were outraged that they didn’t explain their decision to their supporters.

An editorial entitled Dim Hopes for a Free Press in China published on Monday in the New York Times and written by Xiao Shu, a commentator for Southern Weekly for six years, notes that ever since Tuo Zhen started overseeing the Guangdong party propaganda last May, he has “micromanaged every aspect of media operations.”

Xiao Shu went on to say that under Tuo “Guangdong retreated into its darkest period since the start of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening up’ policies in the late 1970s.” Xiao was told to quit in March 2011, as authorities grew nervous of Arab-Spring inspired dissent.

It would seem that some of the most daring journalists in China have settled for a deal which, as Xiao Shu described, was “ending pre-publication censorship by the Communist Party’s propaganda arm in Guangdong Province and permitting greater editorial independence.” I asked Antony Tao, founder and blogger at Beijing Cream, a well-regarded China news blog, how credible these assertions were.

“It sounds good on paper, but I wouldn’t put much stock in ‘tacit’ agreements,” he said. “We should also keep in mind that in most Chinese newsrooms, to the best of my knowledge, editors and censors work in symbiosis to keep themselves out of trouble. No one wants to draw the ire of higher-ranking censors.”

According to Tao, a settlement was best for editors and journalists involved. As for what it means for media freedoms in China, Tao said:

“I don’t think the key players in this drama were ever as concerned about advocating for expanded media rights across China as China watchers perhaps wanted them to be.”

Southern Weekly censorship causes nationwide condemnation

A propaganda chief has caused widespread outrage by censoring a Chinese newspaper’s New Year editorial. Southern Weekly, one of the most daring media outlets in the country, has fought back and attracted the support of netizens as well as ordinary folk,  who  protested today [7 January], calling for press freedom.

The Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Chief, Tuo Zhen, is said to have changed the heading and content of a 2013 new year editorial originally written by Southern Weekly editors. “China’s Dream is a Dream of Constitution” became “We Are Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before.” No Southern Weekly editor knew until they saw the print edition.

Indignant, Chinese bloggers started discussing this as early as 2 January. In the next few days, noted figures were calling for Tuo’s resignation. Among them was Zhang Yihe, the writer whose memoirs have been banned on the mainland.

Today, after a night of criticisms of microblog platform Sina Weibo’s censoring of Southern Weekly journalists’ accounts — many of whom have either staged a walk out or spoken out — ordinary people in Guangzhou gathered and protested at the headquarters of Southern Weekly.

Wen Yunchao, a rights activist has collected over 100 photos of the protest on Google+. Most people held signs in support of Southern Weekly and in defiance of Tuo Zhen.

Photo of protesters outside the Southern Weekly office by Husker on Sina Weibo

Photo of protesters outside the Southern Weekly office by Husker on Sina Weibo

Netizens were also also outraged by a leaked microblog by the journalist Wu Wei, who wrote that he was forced to hand over the password to the Southern Weekly Sina microblog account to the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Huang Can. Under guidance, a statement was then tweeted from the account, alleging that the New Year’s greeting was “drafted by personnel at Southern Weekly,” extending its apologies to readers for the errors on the front page that were committed due to “lack of time and negligence.”

This caused an uproar, not least because the errors were obviously caused by the propaganda chief, who slotted in his own comments, writing what he wanted without having it checked by news editors. Tuo Zhen is accused of deliberately condensing 2012 as he saw fit, for toeing the Party line, and putting a controversial passage on the front page the prestigious newspaper. The passage began: 

Great Yu Controls the Flood, a story from two thousand years ago, taught us the Chinese people’s dream of peace, prosperity, and happiness, fought for through uniting in strength and indomitability.

Not only is this contrary to the message of the original Southern Weekly piece — asking for a “constitution realised and power effectively checked” — but there were two basic mistakes in the opening sentence: One was a wrong character — akin to a typo in English — used for the phrase “uniting in strength”; the other was that Great Yu controlled the flood four thousand years ago, not two.

Dozens of ex-Southern Weekly interns sent out an open letter condemning these mistakes. It was soon deleted by microblog censors. Other journalists at the paper have also commented on how angry they were at these mistakes.

They also rallied at the inside editorial, slashed and re-written without permission from editors.

Wang Xiaoshan, a noted journalist, wrote about holding a vigil for the many Southern Weekly journalists who are facing retribution for their outspoken defiance, with their jobs on the line.

In an open letter from 5 January, Southern Weekly staff wrote:

What happened three days ago was only a trigger. An incomplete calculation has showed that in 2012 Southern Weekly had 1,034 articles changed or killed. In the last year, the newspaper has suffered through unmatched censoring, killing off of articles or even whole pages.

We’re not afraid to offend because we think this concerns the fundamental position of the news media. And because it’s so fundamental, we must be plainspoken. We’re not acting as a result of holding a grudge, but due to the sense of dignity, responsibility, and feeling of achievement that one person should accord another.

Meanwhile, on 4 January Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a weekly press conference:

There is no such thing as so-called media censorship in China. The Chinese government protects press freedom according to the law, and enables full supervision of opinion in the media and of its citizens.