BEIJING — A standoff between journalists at an influential Chinese newspaper and government censors appears to have ended. Southern Weekly was released as scheduled on Thursday and unprecedented protests outside its offices in southern China - which have won wide support online - have tapered off. Although the standoff appears to have ended, the fight about government censorship is far from being over.
In the new edition of the Southern Weekly, readers were not given any clues about what might have ended the standoff. Online reports suggested that some sort of deal was reached between the paper’s management and its government minders.
Neither has yet to release any information publicly and reporters and editors have been told to not speak with foreign media about the incident.
“We do not know exactly what the specifics are, but I am assuming that they'd want a return of the status quo, which was what this really was about, originally the propaganda leaders stepping way over the line, It wasn't about no censorship or censorship it was about the propaganda leaders had really changed the game rules,” says David Bandurski, who is with the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
The backlash from the paper’s staff began last week, first online and later in the form of a full-blown rally outside the publication’s office. Staff at the newspaper say that, in last week’s edition, a propaganda official took the bold step of changing an annual New
Year’s editorial - swapping out a piece that discussed China’s dream for constitutional government and voiced support for free speech with a pro-Communist Party script.
Although smaller protests continued Thursday, the incident now appears to be in clamp down mode. Outside the paper’s office on Thursday, one supporter - a university student - was dragged away by plainclothes policeman. A video, which was posted online, showed the man shouting out the paper’s name as he was carried off.
State-media outlets have said little about the uproar - aside from criticizing it - and those microbloggers that did publish information or speak out about the incident online appear to have been given warnings to stop.
Cheng Yizhong is a Chinese journalist who helped launch Southern Weekly's sister-publication Southern Metropolis Daily, but is no longer with the media group He says authorities first and foremost wanted to make sure the standoff did not turn into a big political affair.
“This was a very important factor in how they wanted to resolve the issue, so they tried to keep inside information secret to outsiders or foreigners, using all kinds of methods," says Cheng. "What people probably cannot see is that they [staffers] were probably faced with just how much pressure employees came under and what type of strict control measures to solve this problem.”
Analysts say what has happened at Southern Weekly and how the events have unfolded has thrust the government’s often covert, subtle and behind-the-scenes intrusion into reporting in China out into the public limelight.
Not only have propaganda officials changed the editorial, but they also apparently forced the paper’s staff to cover up that fact and even prodded other media organizations to do the same.
On Wednesday, several media outlets were forced to run an editorial written by the country’s fiercely patriotic Global Times newspaper, which blamed the entire incident on hostile foreign forces.
David Bandurski says this spurred a lot of resentment online and the editorial quickly became the focus of a lot of jokes on China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblogging service.
“They’ve really bungled this, and now what we are seeing with the Beijing News they have really turned this into a national issue through mismanagement, so we'll have to see over the next few days how it will pan out,” says Bandurski.
The editor in chief at the Beijing News is reported to have submitted his resignation for the Global Times editorial.
Although China’s media is becoming increasingly commercialized and subject to market and readership demands, newspapers must still answer to the Communist party.
To obtain a license, newspapers need to be sponsored by the Communist party or a government office. Party secretaries are embedded in newsroom offices to keep a close eye on coverage and its editorial direction.
Cheng says that the means that authorities control of the media is in sharp contrast with commercialization.
“This contradiction is growing more and more intense and also impacts directly on the media existence, because if the media continue this way, and propaganda departments continue to impact like this papers like Southern Weekly, or the Southern Metropolis Daily they will completely lose all readers, because they are not afraid will go somewhere else online, on Weibo, on social media,” he says.
However, given the broad attention the incident has stirred up, some analysts say that the incident could lead to censors taking a softer approach.