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May 28, 2017

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How a feisty Chinese newspaper stood up for press freedom

BEIJING -- Journalists at the Beijing News were at home late one night last week when their mobile phones started ringing. Colleagues in the newsroom were telling them of a showdown between the newspaper's management and propaganda department officials.

That afternoon, propaganda officials had come to see publisher Dai Zigeng and editor-in-chief Wang Yuechun to demand that the paper heed a government directive to publish an editorial by the nationalist Global Times, denouncing protests against censorship at another paper, the Southern Weekly.

But the Beijing News was resisting.

In a country where newspapers usually toe the government line, the defiance by the Beijing News was remarkable. Not since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests had reporters banded together in such a dramatic way for the cause of press freedom.

The challenge by both the Southern Weekly and the Beijing News highlights a pivotal struggle between media increasingly pushing for independence and a Communist Party government that brooks no dissent to its rule.

That night at the Beijing News, Dai and Wang called a meeting with a small group of staff — mostly editors, though reporters who were close to the office rushed back. They asked for opinions about running the editorial criticizing the Southern Weekly.

Everyone opposed it despite a threat from the authorities to shut their paper down, said a senior Beijing News editor who gave Reuters a detailed account of the turmoil in the newsroom.

"The Global Times' definition of it was wrong, we all knew that it wasn't true," said the editor, referring to the editorial denouncing the Southern Weekly protests.

"To publish something like that at this time would be helping someone commit evil," said the editor, who declined to be identified saying his newspaper's management had ordered staff not to talk about the incident to other media.

The Global Times, owned by the party mouthpiece the People's Daily, blamed overseas forces for inciting the Southern Weekly protests and said China was not ready for dramatic media reforms.

The talks between the Beijing News and the propaganda officials went on into the night.

Dai, who had built the Beijing News into a title known for feisty reporting and commentary, told the officials that he might as well resign if the government was forcing the paper to print something against its will.

But despite that, in the end, after resisting the government directive for two days, the Beijing News decided it had to obey.

Some journalists wept, the editor said: "Everyone's emotions were running high, we all found it difficult to accept."

But in an unusual deal hammered out between Dai and the propaganda officials, the Beijing News was able to cut the editorial down to 400 characters, bury it on page 20 and print it under a different headline.

It was an acceptable solution for both sides, said the editor. Neither Dai nor the Beijing propaganda department were available for comment

But the deal might just signal the end of the first round of a long struggle rather than a lasting peace. The fate of both the Beijing News and the Southern Weekly, where the dispute was settled with a compromise, will be closely watched as a test of new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping's commitment to political reform.

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