Censorship is part of everyday life in China. But Guangdong province's propaganda chief went too far, unleashing a wave of protests and demands for reform. Now, a compromise has been reached.
Dealing with censorship is part of an editor's everyday life in China. But what Guangdong province's chief of propaganda came up with was going too far for most journalists there.
Large swathes of the New Year edition of the weekly Nanfang Zhoumo, or the Southern Weekly, were completely re-written - without the consent of the authors or original editors of the articles. Some of the edits completely changed the content and in some cases, mistakes were even added in.
The editorial staff hardly recognized their newspaper after it went to press. But this time, they didn't swallow their anger. Instead, they used Internet networking sites to publicly discuss the mutilation of their articles. Journalists and intellectuals decided to write a number of open letters in which they demanded freedom of opinion and the removal of Guangdong's chief of propaganda Tuo Zhen from his office, which he has held since early 2012.
Orders from above
On Monday, January 7, around one thousand demonstrators gathered outside the paper's editorial office in a show of their support to the staff. The demonstration continued on Tuesday.
The Southern Weekly is a forerunner of investigative journalism and has the reputation of being a relatively independent newspaper. All of the articles for the January 3 issue had already been approved but, right before the paper went to print, editor-in-chief Huang Can received a phone call from the ministry of propaganda, as explained in one of the open letters written.
According to the letter, the call had been made to request that the editor-in-chief soften up any critical voices in the articles - especially in the editorial, which had called on the government to put into practice civil rights guaranteed in the country's constitution. What ended up in print was instead praise for all China had so far accomplished.
Journalist Cheng Yizhong was once editor-in-chief of the Southern Local, which is tied to the Southern Weekly. He told DW that the propaganda ministry had routinely changed the content of the weekly. It was something journalists were used to, he said. But now, apparently, their patience had run out. He said the huge mistakes added to the articles of the January 3 issue had been a good demonstration of the propaganda chief Tuo Zhen's arrogance.
In his first weeks in office, the new party leader Xi Jinping spoke of introducing further reforms - more openness and transparency, which is something that has given the protests further impetus. Not long ago, a commentary published in the party newspaper Renmin Ribao called on officials at the ministry of propaganda to keep up with new developments, pointing to the Renmin Ribao as a prime example of how more openness could be put into practice.
In Chinese microblogs, people are now discussing how much weight should be given to announcements made by the party's new leadership in light of the recent developments in Guangdong.
A number of journalists with the Southern Weekly started a strike. It has been said that the paper's entire business department has joined the strike. Insiders who wished not to be named told DW that management had received the order to publish the next issue this coming Thursday, January 10.
On Wednesday, compromises were apparently reached between the editorial staff and the authorities. Insiders said that propaganda officers would no longer directly intervene in the editorial work of the newspaper's staff prior to publication. Provincial propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, will apparently also step down from his post in the near future. In return, editors are said to have agreed to ensure that future edition are published on time.
The controversy is being hotly debated on the Internet, where it is being permanently censored and erased. Nonetheless, there is a constant flow of new information and discussions to fill the holes left by information deleted by the censors. For Chang Ping, former editor of the weekly, social networking sites like Weibo are playing a pivotal role in the discussion because now, developments in the tug-of-war between the propaganda ministry and the editorial staff can no longer be kept completely hushed.