Hands off the Southern Weekly, say protesters. (Photo/CFP)
Editorial staff at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly have initiated a strike as their censorship row with the Communist Party continues to escalate following accusations that authorities pressured the paper's management to back down, reports Hong Kong's Ming Pao.
This marks the first time in more than 20 years that the editorial staff of a major newspaper in China has openly staged a strike against government censorship.
The feud began when a New Year editorial on political reforms intended for publication by Southern Weekly, also known as the Southern Weekend, which has been described by the New York Times as China's most influential liberal newspaper, was allegedly replaced at the last minute with an article glorifying the party's economic achievements by Guangdong's provincial propaganda office.
Journalists and editors at the newspaper took to their microblogs to vent their anger, accusing provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, a former vice president of the state newswire Xinhua, of "crude" interference with their paper and suppressing freedom of the press.
Dozens of search terms on microblogs related the censorship controversy were subsequently blocked, with reports of user accounts being suspended.
Southern Weekly then retaliated with two open letters from 35 prominent former staff and 50 interns from the paper, demanding Tuo's resignation and calling for an inquiry.
"Two days after we demanded a formal investigation, the truth about what happened has not been clarified, but more and more people demanding the truth have been silenced," the second letter said, adding that more than a thousand stories were either censored or scrapped altogether by authorities last year.
The letters have been backed up by two separate online petitions, the second of which was signed by 27 scholars, economists and lawyers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
On Sunday evening, the paper's official microblog issued a statement claiming that the New Year editorial in question was written by staff and was not replaced by propaganda officials as alleged. The statement also apologized for a factual error in the published article, which it attributed to an in-house editor.
Minutes before the statement was posted, however, a member of the Southern Weekly's editorial department contacted Ming Pao and said that the paper's official microblog page had been taken over by management, who had been pressured by the authorities to back down from the stand-off.
"The editorial staff will fight against the falsified statement," the editor said. "Until the issue is resolved, we will not do any editorial work."
Sources say that Guangdong authorities are taking the scandal very seriously. Newly appointed party chief Hu Chunhua has reportedly been devising a strategy to diffuse the situation in a meeting with members of the provincial committee overnight.
Tuo Zhen 庹震
Hu Chunhua 胡春華