GUANGZHOU, China--The Southern Weekly newspaper’s problems started back in May, when an official named Tuo Zhen was appointed chief of the propaganda department of the Guangdong provincial party committee.
Tuo, a former vice president of the state-run Xinhua News Agency who had no previous ties with the southeastern province, had one key mission: exert control over the Nanfang Media Group, publisher of the Southern Weekly, as the Communist Party prepared for its power transition in November.
What followed was incessant meddling in news coverage, culminating in the recent row over censorship of the newspaper’s New Year’s edition, according to journalists.
“We have been offended by censorship over the past six months,” a former senior editor at the Southern Weekly said.
The latest dispute erupted after the newspaper’s original New Year’s message calling for guaranteed constitutional rights was changed--without the knowledge of many editors--to words praising the Communist Party. Authorities then issued orders to the newspaper and other media organizations to follow the party line.
The Southern Weekly is one of the most respected newspapers in China for its relatively free coverage. The Nanfang Media Group also publishes the Southern Daily, the Southern Metropolis Daily and other publications.
When Tuo was named to the post, Liu Yunshan was chief of the propaganda department of the party’s Central Committee.
Liu was promoted to a fifth-ranking official of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee in November, the highest decision-making body in China, handling publicity and propaganda.
Liu appointed Tuo to the post to increase pressure on media outlets in Guangdong province to ensure a smooth running of the National Congress, when Xi Jinping was picked as China’s new leader.
Tuo’s enthusiasm in his task clashed with the three tenets of the Nanfang Media Group’s editorial policy: to speak of the truth, to get to the bottom of the matter and to defend an open attitude toward speech.
Reporters with the Southern Weekly said Tuo demanded changes even to articles that had nothing to do with politics.
In one instance, Tuo became angry when he saw an article titled “Reasons Chinese movies in recent years are not good” on the entertainment page of the Southern Daily in June.
“What happened to this article?” a reporter quoted Tuo as saying. “This needs instruction.”
After China began to push through reforms and an open-door policy in the late 1970s, people in Guangdong province became exposed to free reporting by media outlets in adjacent Hong Kong. Many people in the province have relatives who have moved abroad and are familiar with the idea of a free press.
Officials at the Nanfang Media Group said they edit the publications in a way that meets the expectations of such readers.
But Tuo ended up spiking Southern Weekly stories. He also had help in muzzling the media.
In July, the newspaper’s eight-page coverage of the disaster caused by torrential rain in Beijing was deleted. That order came from Yang Jian, deputy chief of the Guangdong provincial propaganda department.
Yang, who was president of Xinhua’s Guangdong branch, assumed the top post of party secretary of the Nanfang Media Group, around the same time Tuo was named the province’s propaganda chief.
Yang’s appointment broke with the practice of having a longtime member of the group become party secretary.
It was Yang who ordered an illustration on the front page of the Southern Weekly’s New Year issue be replaced with a picture of Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, which was commissioned last year.
The president of the Nanfang Media Group was dismissed as party secretary following Yang’s appointment. Reporters expressed concerns that the group’s presidency may be eliminated after the current president retires next year.
“Reporters and group officials are afraid that the tradition of the Nanfang Media Group may be lost,” said a source familiar with the matter.
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