Wednesday, January 09, 2013

China attempts to rein in censorship protests

Perhaps fearing that protests over censorship and free speech could get out of hand, Chinese authorities have drawn up a tentative agreement to defuse a newsroom strike by Chinese journalists in southern China.

But despite some signs of appeasement in the south, in the capital Beijing there appeared to be indications that the anger spreading amongst journalists was not over. According to reports, Dai Zigeng, the publisher of the Beijing News and a Communist Party member, tendered his resignation on Tuesday night after propaganda officials forced the newspaper to publish a hardline editorial supporting government control of the media.

Censored editorials

Throughout the past week there have been peaceful by vocal protests outside the offices of the Southern Weekend, also known as the Southern Weekly, in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. Journalists had been angered by censorship of a new year editorial which had originally called for greater legal rights entitled "China's Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism" which ended up as a celebration of the government's achievements.


Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the paper's headquarters on Monday [7th January] holding placards demanding free speech. "Abandon press censorship. Chinese people want freedom!" one handwritten placard held by several protesters said. Another placard read, "I support freedom of speech. Stop censoring Southern Weekly". One demonstrator wore a face mask with the Chinese characters "避言套" [Bi Yan Tao] a phrase meaning 'prevent speech' which attracted the attention of police who demanded she remove it. Others held roses and white and yellow chrysanthemums, a flower of mourning in Chinese tradition.

Such protests will have unnerved Beijing, who will be concerned that the demonstrations could become something much larger. In early 2011 so-called Jasmine protests drew the ire of authorities which clamped down hard on activists and dissidents across the country [tvnewswatch: China's Jasmine Revolution quickly quashed / tvnewswatch: Heavy policing stops Beijing protests].

Government denials

In response to questions raised by foreign journalists about the Southern Weekend case, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on January 4th that China upholds press freedom and "there is no so-called news censorship in China."

However, his words seemed somewhat hollow given that news of the Guangzhou protests were not being reported in Chinese media and any mention of the demonstration on Chinese micro-blogs were being heavily censored by authorities. Searches for "Southern Weekend" in Chinese [南方周末] brought up a familiar message saying that "In accordance with the relevant laws, regulations and policies, "Southern Weekend" search results are not displayed." [CaoNiMa / Link TV]


But with so many messages, pictures and video being posted online, it was clear authorities had to do something to slow the tide of dissent. Reports today suggest said that the provincial Communist Party chief, high-flier Hu Chunhua, had intervened to defuse the situation.

Foreigners blamed

On Tuesday, an editorial from the state-run Global Times blaming the incident on "activists outside the media industry" was republished on multiple news sites, the result, according to reports, of a government directive.

"It is clear that under the reality of China's current state of affairs, the country is unlikely to have the 'absolutely free media,'" the editorial said, and accused foreigners of "inciting some media to engage in confrontation." [Global Voices / Xinhua Chinese / Global Times English / Global Times English]

Growing dissent

But several major news portals carried a disclaimer saying they did not endorse the piece and a number of newspapers, including the Beijing News and Shanghai Morning News, declined to run the mandatory editorial, in an apparent show of solidarity to the journalists from the Southern Weekend.

Reports citing sources both from the paper's staff and people close to them said a deal to end the dispute was agreed on Tuesday evening. Thursday's edition would be published as normal and most staff would not be punished, a Reuters said. Other details of the agreement are not clear.


"The paper is coming out tomorrow, and the propaganda department is going to hold a meeting with staff about this tomorrow," said one journalist, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. However there was still some anger amongst the journalists and reporters some of which said the details of the agreement remained unclear and suggested that the deal could fall apart [Telegraph / WSJ blog].

In fact while many people in China might feel emboldened by the calls for greater freedom, the status quo and monopoly of power is likely to continue. In an editorial published by the Global Times the paper said "the media cannot directly attack the nation's basic political system, because the basic political system is set out by the Constitution." In other words, The Communist Party wrote a Constitution that guarantees the Communist Party can never be challenged, thus the media must not question the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

The logical fallacy of circular reasoning was not lost on the many who posted critical and sarcastic messages on Chinese forums and micro-blogging sites.

More reports: BBC / Sky News / CNNTelegraphNYT / WSJ / Epoch Times / FT

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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