Southern Weekly caves in to mainland's censors, backs off from standoff
By Didi Tang, APGUANGZHOU, China--Communist Party-backed management and rebellious staff at an influential weekly newspaper stepped back Wednesday from a contentious standoff over censorship that spilled over to the wider public and turned into an unexpected test of the new Chinese leadership's tolerance for political reform.
January 10, 2013, 12:04 am TWN
Hopes among supporters of the Southern Weekly that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship appeared to fizzle with a tentative resolution. Under an agreement reached Tuesday, editors and reporters at the newspaper will not be punished for protesting and stopping work in anger over a propaganda official's heavy-handed rewriting of a New Year's editorial last week, according to two members of the editorial staff. One, an editor, said propaganda officials will no longer directly censor content prior to publication, though other longstanding controls remain in place.
“If that's the case, we've got a small victory for the media,” said David Bandurksi, an expert on Chinese media at Hong Kong University. The compromise, he said, might see censors back off the “really ham-fisted approach” they had taken in recent months.
The staff members who described the deal asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation after they and other employees were told not to speak to foreign media. Executives at the newspaper and its parent company, the state-owned Nanfang Media Group, declined comment on the agreement other than to say that staff were at work Wednesday and the Southern Weekly would publish as normal Thursday.
“I don't know if what we do will make a difference, but we must do this,” said Xu Lin, one of scores of supporters who gathered in protest for a third day outside the Southern Weekly's offices. “If we don't get our voices heard, we are trampled grass. We are humans, not grass.”
Protesters swelled in numbers to nearly 100 by mid-afternoon, flanked by dozens of police, who separated them from about 20 left-wing Communist Party loyalists who waved national flags and portraits of revolutionary patriarch Mao Zedong. A freelance real estate agent, Xiao Yunhui, had newspaper taped to his body and the words “kidnapped” to show that the Southern Weekly “cannot speak in its own voice.”
The standoff echoed through the newsroom of the Beijing News, which is co-owned by Nanfang Media and has a reputation for aggressive reporting. Editors at the newspaper all week defied an order to run a commentary which many other newspapers carried that blamed resistance to censorship on meddling foreign forces. Then, according to accounts by reporters on microblogs, a propaganda official showed up Tuesday to insist.
At a tearful late-night meeting, staff voted to hold out, and publisher Dai Zigeng said he would resign, the accounts said. Still, a reporter and a phone operator at the Beijing News said Dai remained in his post Wednesday. The newspaper also carried the commentary, in an abbreviated version under a bland headline that left out criticisms of the Southern Weekly and its supporters.