A protester with a mask reading 'silence' holds a sign of support outside the office of Southern Weekly newspaper on January 7, 2013. (Photo/AP)
DHARAMSHALA, January 8: A rare confluence of striking journalists against overbearing governmental censorship, petitioning by intellectuals, and street protests by commoners in support of free media threatens to snowball into the first full-blown political crisis for China’s new set of leaders.
On Monday, hundreds of people in Guangzhou , capital of Guangdong province, gathered outside the offices of Southern Weekend, a popular reform-minded newspaper and staged a peaceful demonstration against media censorship.
Protesters, including middle school students and white-collar workers, laid flowers at the gate, held signs and shout slogans calling for freedom of speech, political reform, constitutional governance and democracy.
This after about 100 editorial staff members of the Southern Weekend went on strike protesting governmental censorship, saying the newspaper is under pressure from authorities. Several reporters and editors at the newspaper said they would not return to work until the issue was resolved.
The row was sparked last week when the southern province’s top censor changed the paper’s New Year's editorial calling for political reform and for guaranteed constitutional rights into a floral tribute praising the ruling Communist Party.
In response, the newspaper's staff wrote two letters calling for the resignation of Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, accusing him of being "dictatorial" in an era of "growing openness".
All Chinese media are supervised by so-called propaganda departments that often change content to align it with party thinking.
The newspaper also received support from a group of Chinese academics, who signed an open letter calling for Tuo’s dismissal. The scholars included legal professors, liberal economists, historians and writers.
Within China’s strictly guarded propaganda apparatus, Southern Weekly, with 1.6m circulation, is seen as “influential and daring” and known for its “unrivalled pursuit of top-level investigative journalism.” The newspaper has been in trouble with government censors in the past as well.
Following the row, posts deemed to contain sensitive words such as the name of the paper or Tuo Zhen have been actively deleted.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman when asked about the Southern Weekly issue last week at a regular press briefing said that there is "no so-called news censorship in China."
However, observes see this case as a major political challenge to China’s Communist Party’s newly elected leaders.
BBC argues that if the Southern Weekly strike continues for any length of time, this scandal will “create a major headache for China's new leader, Xi Jinping.”
“Since he took the reins of power in Beijing, Mr Xi has generated kudos for his seemingly laid-back, open style of leadership. But the Southern Weekly uproar will force him to reveal his hand when it comes to censorship,” BBC notes. “If Mr Xi allows Southern Weekly's special status to be wiped away, he risks tarnishing his carefully cultivated reputation as a humble man of the people.”
Exile Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in a recent interview with a major Indian news channel had called censorship in China "immoral."
"Now these days, I always keep mentioning when I meet some Chinese people that 1.3 billion Chinese people have every right to know the reality and once they know the reality they also have the ability to judge what is right and what is wrong," the Dalai Lama said. "Therefore, censorship is immoral - fooling their own people - let them know whether it is good or bad, let them judge. That’s very important."