Beijing continues to tighten grip over media in wake of censorship flap

January 30, 2014

By KENTARO KOYAMA/ Correspondent

GUANGZHOU, China--A year after a huge censorship row broke out at the Southern Weekly newspaper, known for its investigative journalism, things have gone from bad to worse concerning press freedom in China.

Although the Southern Weekly and its reporters appeared to have gained a huge concession with the suspension of censorship before publishing, the authorities have used other means in the ensuing year to strengthen their oversight of the media.

The uproar arose among reporters at the Southern Weekly in January 2013 after censors ordered that a New Year's editorial calling for greater constitutional rights be rewritten to praise the Communist Party instead.

After an agreement was reached and editors went home early on Jan. 1, the propaganda department of the Guangdong provincial Communist Party committee demanded further modifications. The editor in chief complied.

In late December, a document was leaked to the Internet titled "Explanation of circumstances surrounding the incident."

The document was a report about the damages incurred after hundreds of local citizens gathered in front of Southern Weekly headquarters to protest the censorship and show their support for the newspaper.

The document said, "Many people gathered in front of our head office and that had a huge effect on normal operations at the media group because it blocked the movement of people and cars. Meetings had to be canceled."

The document was submitted to police authorities by the Nanfang Media Group, the publisher of the Southern Weekly.

The leakage of the document led to postings from Southern Weekly readers on the Weibo microblogging services. One said, "They are truly ungrateful." Another called the paper a "traitor."

Even some of the paper's reporters were puzzled by the recent complaint from their publisher.

In response to questions from The Asahi Shimbun, Fan Chenggang, a reporter, said, "I have never felt interfered with in the course of my work."

Fan also posted an item on Weibo that said, "Through the support of many people, Southern Media has been able to gain a slightly wider freedom of voice than before. I want to personally thank all our supporters."

Immediately after the censorship came to light, great expectations were extended toward the Southern Weekly. Officials of the propaganda department of the provincial party committee met with newspaper executives to resolve the row. Those officials were supposed to have agreed to such concessions as ending censorship at the proofing stage and dismissing Huang Can as editor in chief. Huang had been criticized by reporters for his instructions to censor the original editorial.

Hu Chunhua, the secretary of the Guangdong provincial party committee and considered one of the top candidates for inclusion in the next generation of Chinese leadership, is said to have intervened in the matter.

Those moves led reporters to cancel a planned strike.

However, the authorities gradually won back ground through personnel moves.

Not only was Huang not dismissed as editor in chief, but he was actually promoted to head the Southern Weekly group of companies. The deputy director-general of the Guangdong provincial party committee's propaganda department was also named to concurrently serve as president of the Nanfang Media Group.

Police authorities have continued with their investigation into citizens who supported the newspaper.

Three individuals were indicted by prosecutors in December 2013 on charges of disrupting the public order. According to a lawyer for the defendants, one piece of evidence being used by police is the document that was submitted by the Nanfang Media Group reporting on the damages from the gathering in front of company headquarters.

In January, police detained five others without a warrant.

Within the Southern Weekly itself, mid-level officials have been demoted, and there has been an increase in the number of editors and reporters who have quit.

Many of the reporters have talked about fears of stricter monitoring by company executives and the police, with many saying their mobile phones and e-mails are no longer safe.

According to former high-ranking editors who worked in the Nanfang Media Group, the provincial party committee's propaganda department sends instructions to company offices on a daily basis outlining what topics are off-limits for reporters. The banned topics range from political issues both in China and abroad as well as incidents that might have major social ramifications. No reasons are included for why reporters cannot write about such topics.

The instructions are posted in the newsrooms of all papers belonging to the group and e-mails are sent out to all reporters working for the group.

In 2012, when censorship was still in place, a total of 1,034 stories were scrapped or rewritten before publishing. While such censorship was supposed to have ended a year ago, there were still about 1,000 stories that were said to have been handled as self-censorship cases in 2013.

The authorities again interfered with the New Year edition that was published on Jan. 2. While the theme of the special pages for the New Year edition is normally decided on at a meeting of editors, an assistant editor at Southern Weekly said, "In order to avoid confusion like last year, this time we gained the ratification of the head of the media group (who concurrently serves as deputy director-general of the provincial party committee's propaganda department)."

With this year marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the paper, a New Year's message published in the paper said, "As a paper which depends on the truth, there are times when we may have power and other times when we may be powerless. Still we will try to be responsible for going after the truth as much as possible and transmitting it. That is the starting point of departure for both ourselves and our readers."

However, no mention was made of such terms as "freedom, democracy and constitutional government" that were deleted from last year's New Year's editorial by the authorities.

"We constantly feel the suspicions of and pressure from the authorities," one reporter said.

The stronger pressure in Guangdong province is a reflection of similar moves being made by the administration of President Xi Jinping.

At the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee held last November, measures were approved to tighten control over the media. Among the steps were stricter enforcement of the qualification system for reporters belonging to domestic media organizations and greater emphasis on control of Internet media. The plenary session also called for maintaining the system for properly guiding public opinion.

In January and February, all 250,000 or so reporters in China working for domestic newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations must take a uniform exam to renew their reporter licenses.

One theme of the exam is the view of Marxist reporting, which emphasizes that "news and public opinion should not be utilized as tools to go against the policies decided by the Communist Party."

One aim of the exam is to tighten ideological control over reporters.

There are also moves to cut off ties among media outlets that transcend regional boundaries.

In line with instructions from the central committee's propaganda department, the Nanfang Media Group sold off its entire 49-percent stake in the Beijing News daily newspaper to the Beijing municipal government in January.

As a sister publication to the Southern Weekly and the Southern Metropolis Daily, the Beijing News had engaged in an exchange of reporters with those papers. Its investigative reporting had also aroused the ire of the authorities.

There have also been reports that the Nanfang Media Group had pulled out its stake in the Jianghuai Chenbao, a daily newspaper in Anhui province.

"The aim is to reduce the Nanfang Media Group to a media outlet in a single region in order to weaken its influence," said Cheng Yizhong, a former editor in chief of the Beijing News.

By KENTARO KOYAMA/ Correspondent
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The Jan. 2 edition of the Southern Weekly newspaper (Kentaro Koyama)

The Jan. 2 edition of the Southern Weekly newspaper (Kentaro Koyama)

  • The Jan. 2 edition of the Southern Weekly newspaper (Kentaro Koyama)
  • Local citizens in Guangzhou hold up signs in support of the Southern Weekly newspaper in front of company headquarters in January 2013. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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