BEIJING — Journalists and editors at an influential and often outspoken newspaper in China have gone on strike in protest of government censorship. The dispute involves a local propaganda official who allegedly called for changes to the publication's annual New Year’s editorial to its readers. The standoff at the Southern Weekly newspaper is growing from an internal dispute into a national debate about government oversight of the media.
The influential newspaper has long been known for its outspokenness and independent-minded efforts to cover the news in a country where information is a tightly controlled commodity.
Employees say that when they returned from an annual New Year’s holiday last Thursday they discovered that a section of the paper that was to discuss the touchy topic of constitutional reform had been dramatically changed. That prompted an uproar.
The uproar came first online - on blogs and other Twitter-like Weibo social media sites - with staffers accusing the propaganda chief where the paper is based, in Guangdong province, of making the changes and then, on Monday, in the form of protests outside the company’s offices.
Photos of the protesters that managed to briefly get posted online before they were taken down showed some holding up signs and shouting slogans calling for freedom of speech, democracy and political reform.
Li Datong, a former prominent Chinese editor who was fired from a state media organization for his views, says the apparent intervention by the propaganda department appears to be a new tactic for state censors.
"The propaganda department has already changed from the previous mode of censorship after publication to what we see now as a move towards censorship before publication," said Li. "It does not matter if it was Tuo Zhen, himself, but it was the propaganda department that did this. They have transformed what was control after publication to control before publication. This is a very nasty beginning."
Dozens of academics and editors have already begun openly calling, on line, for the resignation of the propaganda chief. Students from China’s Nanjing University and others have posted pictures of themselves online as well holding cards that cheered the newspaper on urging it to “Jia You” in Chinese, which means "Go."
Some are already beginning to believe the dispute could become a watershed event that promotes much deeper reforms.
Since Xi Jinping took over as head of the Communist Party in November, journalists have been taking bolder steps in testing the limits of the country’s new team of leaders both in reporting and on editorial pages.
Xi’s actions have in part helped prompt this wave because he has called for protecting the country’s constitution. He has also won praise for an anti-corruption campaign and efforts to get officials to cut back on pomp.
Zhong Xin is a professor of journalism at Renmin University.
"There have definitely been changes," said the professor. "We have to say that there are changes at different levels that give a general impression of media being more challenging and [regulations] tolerant. There is a feeling, it seems like people dare to speak a bit more about certain issues."
Zhong says that, although it is difficult to guage how much change the events may bring, they could at least promote changes in the way China’s media is managed.
"If it is a revolutionary type of change that goes quickly from nothing to everything, from all these rules to no rule and management at all, I think that this type of reform will not happen because in China we prefer gradual reforms, gradual change," she said.
Li Datong says he hopes that the incident will give authorities a chance to consider carefully that this type of management and control over the news is absolutely not necessary.
"Change and reform is not so easy," said Li. "It needs a very big discussion, because it is a matter of rights, rights of opinion, rights to know the facts and rights of expression. How do you realize these rights, that is the problem. Because, in this case, it is not just a matter of the propaganda departments controlling the media. They want to control all webpages, all Weibos, everyday they are there deleting pages, deleting this and that. How long can they keep at it?"
For now, however, that struggle goes on. Managers at the Southern Weekly say they had to turn over their Weibo passwords to authorities and that the site is no longer being managed by the newspaper’s staff.