Journalists from a Chinese paper caught up in a censorship dispute are returning to work after reportedly reaching a deal with authorities. The row is a rare example of a press-state clash in a country whose rulers have “absolute control” over media.
Reports from inside the local government and the newspaper Southern Weekend say that a deal to end the strike was reached on Tuesday night. The Thursday edition of the paper will be distributed as normal and the majority of the newspaper workers will not be punished, reported Reuters.
A pro-party daily lambasted anti-censorship strikers in China’s Guangzhou, saying their “issue will see no surprise ending.” Several major outlets reposted the piece only with disclaimers, prompting speculation they’d taken a stand against Beijing. While China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the US for voicing support for the journalists’ cause.
"China is opposed to any country's, any person's interference in internal affairs in any form," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told the media in Beijing.
On Monday, all five of China’s major web portals started publishing an editorial put together by the Global Times, a tabloid associated with the ruling Communist Party. The editorial dwelt on the strike and protest in the southern province of Guangdong, where staff with the paper, Southern Weekly are demanding the resignation of regional publicity chief Tuo Zhen.
They accuse Tuo Zhen of removing their New Year article, which called for guaranteed constitutional rights and more media freedom, and replacing it with one hailing the party.
The Global Times said the protest in Guangzhou was an attempt to incite the media “to engage in confrontation” with “the current system” and accused dissidents, including Chen Guangcheng, of orchestrating it. The editorial said that China is “unlikely to have an absolutely free media" and is not ready for “radical” media reform.
“We hope readers support the Southern Weekly and cooperate to resolve the incident, not forcing it to play a role beyond its reach,” concluded the daily.
Though this is not officially confirmed, it appears that the editorial was forced onto many outlets including Sohu, SINA and Phoenix news portals. Those, however, preferred to distance themselves from the piece supplying the repost with disclaimer like the one below:
“This article represents the opinion of the author, and not that of Phoenix. Phoenix has not verified the reporting, words, or content of the story. The website does not guarantee the whole story or any part of it, its accuracy, totality, or timeliness. Readers are advised to treat it as reference and verify the content themselves."
At least four prominent newspapers even disobeyed orders to publish the editorial as such, report Los Angeles Times correspondent in China.
“It is particularly amazing to see web portals taking part in a protest against censorship – these companies are some of the largest online business in the world, and they rely on numerous licenses from the Chinese government in order to operate,” journalist David Cohen wrote for his column in the Diplomat magazine, which covers Asia-Pacific affairs.
Meanwhile, back in the city of Guangzhou, the Southern Weekly strike and protest reached its second day, with some scuffles taking place. A small group of leftists holding posters of Chairman Mao Zedong came to the daily’s headquarters to oppose what they called "a traitor newspaper". The two parties first jeered at each other but later confrontation ensued.
Dozens of police had to intervene and separate the two groups. Despite the incident the protest was allowed to continue.
The row surrounding the New Year article first surfaced late last week, with debate mostly circulating via social networks. Numerous messages at Weibo, a Chinese analogue of Twitter, suggest that some editorial staff at the Southern Weekly have refused to work since Sunday.
But sources in the parent Southern Media Group tell Reuters that the paper may still be published on Thursday. Editors from sister publications are expected to be brought in should the strike continue.
In China, all national and local media are subject to government publicity department scrutiny especially when they want to touch upon issues of democracy, corruption, separatism or government’s mistakes. Pieces perceived as “counter-revolutionary” are often suppressed. In a way it also holds true for private outlets which might resort to self-censorship to get all the required licenses from the state.