It began as a strongly worded letter. When journalists at the Guangdong daily paper Southern Weekly returned to work on Thursday to find a section had been altered by a propagandist — headline changed, article replaced — they published an open letter demanding “an investigation into the incident.” They named names, in particular accusing Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen of editorial hijacking.
The letter turned into two letters, then three, and now we have a full-blown “incident.” As Alia of Offbeat China notes, labeling something an “incident” usually means things have gotten ugly. Editors have been fired, journalists have gone on strike, websites have been censored — and the chaos might have only just begun.
Let’s bring you up to speed.
After the initial letter, in which Southern Weekly editors said the propaganda department had “raped” its editorial autonomy, a second open letter began circulating and gathering signatures. As China Media Project reports:
A confirmed list of the first batch of signers, obtained by the China Media Project yesterday, included 98 signatures made before 10 p.m. on January 4. Signers included Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明), a popular professor at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, and Southern Metropolis Daily founder and former editor-in-chief Cheng Yizhong (程益中).
The second confirmed list of signers, those signing before 10 a.m. on January 5, included 458 names. Among them were well-known Chinese blogger Bei Feng (北风) and Cui Weiping (崔卫平), a professor at Beijing Film Academy and a frequent contributor to Southern Weekly.
This was followed by a third letter, penned by students at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, featuring three demands. Again, CMP:
1. That the Party leadership in Guangdong launches a thorough investigation of the causes of the incident, and that those responsible are handled according to the law.
2. That all internet posts and Weibo posts discussing this incident that have been blocked or deleted be reinstated, “respecting the expression of every differing opinion.”
3. That no action be taken to punish anyone who has voiced their opinion over the incident.
Already working in a noxious environment, apparently some journalists, scholars, and students have decided that there is a limit to the amount of censorship and bullshit they can tolerate. (Above, students from Nanjing Normal University hold signs that read “Go Southern Weekly.”)
Amid these developments, Global Times published a Chinese editorial asking for “calm” consideration. As translated by Fei Chang Dao:
The truth be told, many media outlets have had the experience of taking certain opinions from the government on important reports. Having the government provide certain specific instructions on important reports is one device that is woven into the fabric of China’s news management. Overall, China’s reporting is increasingly open, and the general trend is a gradual reduction in the specific instructions from the government, but at the same time, there has been no change in the larger structure of media management.
Of course, “Southern Weekly” was blocked from Sina Weibo searches. Worse, the publication’s editor was forced to hand over the account completely. Via Offbeat China:
风端, who is in charge of Southern Weekly’s new media management, claimed that the above announcement by Southern Weekly Weibo account was not by Southern Weekly:
“My announcement: I have already worked with general manager Mao Zheshang who also managed the paper’s new media business to turn in the password for Southern Weekly Weibo account. I’m no longer responsible for announcements or any other content published by that account. Thanks. Hope you can understand. By Wu Wei.”
Southern Weekly statement that its Weibo account was taken away was retweeted 21372 times in 13 minutes. Then the statement was gone.
— Guobin Yang (@Yangguobin) January 6, 2013
Journalists are now taking it to the next level: calling for “occupy” protests in Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai for tomorrow afternoon:
(In Beijing, 1 pm: North Third Ring Road, Shuguang Xili Jia, No. 6 Shijian International, Building 8, north building, Room 2008.)
As they say in this business: stay tuned.
UPDATE, 1/8, 3:29 pm: The protests happened.