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Battle for media freedom in China goes on

Publication Date : 05-02-2013


Corrections done, an unpopular chief editor gone and no more vetting before stories are run. You can say it has all ended rather well for staff of the Southern Weekend newspaper, whose protest against worsening censorship at the weekly had seized the imagination of China's cybersphere.

But these are just concessions - the battle for media freedom in China goes on.

The latest tussle began when Southern Weekend staff found the New Year message in their first issue of the year - traditionally used to articulate hopes for progress in China - turned into a piece faintly praising the Communist Party.

To add to their humiliation, a Page 1 greeting had an error: a water control project was said to be 2,000 years old when it should be double that.

The changes were made when the people responsible for the pages had already signed off. Orders from provincial propaganda officials were given to the paper's editor-in-chief Huang Can, who quietly got the changes made. Huang has since been replaced by a man said to be more open: Wang Genghui, deputy editor-in-chief of the Nanfang Media Group that owns the paper. The water project error was later corrected.

The New Year message fiasco was the last straw: Last year, 1,034 articles were spiked - or about 20 per issue. One outrageous example was an edition last July that featured follow-up stories about the flash floods in Beijing that killed 78 people. Most articles were killed.

Insiders trace the erosion of freedom to the arrival of Tuo Zhen, a former vice-president of the state Xinhua news agency, in Guangdong last May to oversee propaganda.

The Henan native was believed to be sent there to rein in Guangdong's freewheeling media ahead of the political transitions during the 18th Party Congress. Tuo set up vetting teams in the paper, whose job was to go through articles before publication. Those deemed objectionable were heavily changed or pulled.

While censorship is a stark fact of life for newspapers in China, which are given directives on what to publish and what not, some take their chances publishing sensitive stories as long as they are not expressly forbidden.

But such triumphs don't last - a backlash is often just round the corner and daring editors get the chop after a while.

In the Southern Weekend case, the local Guangdong government has promised not to go after any journalist. It's a good outcome but one shouldn't read too much into it, said Professor Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

"It's just a small battle between the government and the media," he told The Straits Times.

Southern defiance

Still, the trouble in the south drew support from all corners, east, west and north.

The Beijing News, whose lineage can be traced to the Southern Media Group, ran an essay extolling "southern porridge" - which sounds like nanzhou, the Chinese shortform for Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly.

While Beijing is home to the most media outlets in China, several of which are known for bold reporting, like Caixin New Century news magazine and The Economic Observer weekly, Guangdong media blazed the trail for gutsy reporting.

It is no accident that China's most rebellious newspapermen are found in this southern province which prides itself on being different and dynamic. Its capital Guangzhou has long fronted China's contact with the outside world. It has been a major port for as long as about 2,000 years, like London or Amsterdam, said Professor Wang Gungwu, chairman of the East Asian Institute.

And the province has historically been distinct from the north. Before China was unified under the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, Guangdong was where the independent Nanyue Kingdom was, he noted.

During the waning of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and rise of the Republic, the province was where those who wanted to shake up China hailed from. Like reformist Kang Youwei and his disciple Liang Qichao, and revolutionary Sun Yat Sen.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Guangdong was one of the places picked to spearhead Deng Xiaoping's political and economic reforms. Its closeness to Hong Kong meant its people were exposed to new ideas and trends from the then British colony.

It is also a province where the private sector dominates, noted Prof Zheng. "In Guangdong, the sense of citizenship and human rights is much stronger than in other parts of China," he said.

Against such a backdrop, rose Southern Weekly in 1984. Its ambitious founding editor Zuo Fang, a former Red Guard who later embraced reform and opening, wanted to produce a paper that caters to readers instead of leaders, unlike staid party papers. These Soviet-style papers faced no market pressure as their production and subscription are both bankrolled by the authorities.

From the start, the weekly was self-financing because the editors wanted it that way. It had to appeal to readers, be it through content or design.

As a weekend paper, it had evaded strict scrutiny initially by focusing on culture and features. It had the lofty aim of bridging China's intellectuals and the masses and catered to a wide church of readers, with articles from parenting to hairstyles.

But it was primarily concerned with social change and the plight of the weak. It soon won fans with its humanistic style - in-depth features on social problems.

"You can not tell the truth, but don't tell an untruth," was one of the paper's guiding principles, said Zuo in an interview.

Under Zuo, its circulation climbed to more than a million and it became the cash cow of the Southern Media Group under the Guangdong provincial party. This made it hard for officials to crack down on it, though some felt their interests threatened by its critical reports.

In 1999, it was almost closed down when it carried a report about a bad cop which was later found to be false. That was the perfect excuse for officials uneasy with the paper to try to get it shut down.

But Southern Weekend had the backing of leaders who saw the value of a paper that helped check the abuses of officials. It was saved by Guangdong party secretary Xie Fei, a Politburo member.

Other bold Guangdong newspapers followed in the wake of Southern Weekend, in particular the Southern Metropolis Daily. The tabloid-sized paper broke the news of the death in detention of migrant worker Sun Zhigang in 2003, which later led to the end of such detention centres.

Fast forward to today and papers like the Southern Weekend continue to dance in shackles, working within the limits of controls. While the latest concessions have given the paper more wiggle room, they hardly herald a new dawn for media freedom. But perhaps Beijing would have to think twice next time before dispatching someone to rein in newsrooms in the south - there's talk that Tuo would step down in the next few months.

As Professor Zhan Jiang, a journalism scholar at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said: "The methods that work in Beijing don't work in Guangdong."


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