Scores of protesters amassed in front of the headquarters of the Guangdong-based Southern Weekend to support media freedom after it emerged that the prominent publication’s New Year’s editorial was doctored by a local Chinese Communist official.
Some experts believe it is one of the most important incidents to raise public awareness about China’s beleaguered media environment in some time.
“Get rid of censorship. The Chinese people want freedom,” wrote one user on Twitter.
The protest came after the Southern Weekend’s editorial staff went on strike over the weekend, a rare public demonstration in support of media freedom in China, one of the most tightly censored countries in the world.
The South China Morning Post reported that the editorial staff went on strike–the first such strike at a major newspaper in several decades.
The decision to strike was made after the paper’s management took control over the editorial department’s microblog account, and said that its New Year’s statement was written by staff and not the provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, who formerly headed Xinhua. Reports emerged over the weekend that Tuo Zhen made the changes without editorial consent, drawing condemnation from reporters, commentators, and numerous Chinese academics.
“The statement [on the official microblog] does not represent the opinion of the editorial staff. It is a result of pressure applied by the authorities on the … management,” reads a statement from Southern Weekly staff members on another microblog, according to the Morning Post. “The editorial staff will fight against the falsified statement … Until the issue is resolved, we will not do any editorial work.”
The original editorial touched on reviving constitutionalism in China, but the new one apparently authored by Tuo removed sensitive topics and praised the Communist Party.
All media organizations–state-run and private–are subject to the Communist Party’s censorship and oftentimes remove content that is deemed sensitive or contrary to its propaganda line. China is consistently ranked as one of the world’s worst press freedom violators in the world by watchdogs.
Protesters in front of the Southern Weekend’s office brought chrysanthemum flowers and chanted “for democracy, press freedom, and human rights,” according to John Kennedy of the South China Morning Post. He also said that middle school students came out to show support. There were minor scuffles between police officers and protesters.
“End press censorship. The Chinese people want freedom!” another Chinese protester said.
“I feel that the ordinary people must awaken,” protester Yuan Fengchu, told The Associated Press via telephone. “The people are starting to realize that their rights have been taken away by the Communist Party and they are feeling that they are being constantly oppressed.”
David Bandurski of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project said the incident “is without a doubt one of the most important we will witness in China this year.”
According to the China Media Project, editorial staff at a Southern Weekend meeting demanded the formation of an investigative team to look into the New Year’s editorial incident and produce a public report. However, editorial board chief Huang Can said that there “there would be no settling of scores and that the censorship process would be ‘returned to normal,'” according to the Media Project.
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