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Restless journalists at "Beijing News" kept under close surveillance

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has voiced outrage at the methods being used by the Chinese Communist Party's publicity department (the former propaganda department) to carry out a purge at the popular, liberal daily "Xin Jing Bao" ("Beijing News"), where it seized direct control on 28 December 2005.

Calm appears to have returned to the newspaper as most of the journalists are on vacation, but surveillance has been stepped up, with the authorities monitoring communications and censoring the Internet to prevent any expression of discontent.

"The police methods used by the authorities to crush the work of the 'Xin Jing Bao' staff is outrageous and leaves no further room for illusions about the policies of President Hu Jintao's administration towards the press," Reporters Without Borders said. "There is now an urgent need for the international community to make defence of press freedom a priority in its dialogue with China."

Even if the protest movement encompassing all-out strikes and petitions by "Xin Jing Bao" journalists seems to have run out of steam, they are still under pressure from the authorities. Phone calls are being monitored, switchboard operators are screening calls to the editorial staff, and the blogs of several of its journalists have been rendered inaccessible.

The Chinese media has not mentioned the protests of 29 and 30 December although they were front-page news abroad. And a search for "strike" with the search engine on the newspaper's website (http://www.thebeijingnews.com) yields no results related to China.

Several sources have confirmed the direct involvement of the Communist Party's publicity department in the purge. After it described the newspaper as "recidivist," the department's chief, Liu Yunshan, said at a 6 December meeting that the "Xin Jing Bao" problem needed to be solved in a "fundamental manner."

The precise reasons for the dismissal of editor-in-chief Yang Bin and his deputies Li Duoyi and Sun Xuedong are still unknown. Several journalists have said those responsible for the censorship were irked by "Xin Jing Bao"'s reports about demonstrations in June by villagers who lost their land in Hebei province and about the pollution in the River Songhuan in November.

The management of the governmental daily "Guangming Ribao", which holds 51 per cent of "Xin Jing Bao"'s shares, is now in charge of appointing new editors. The 30 December issue, which had a print run of 100,000, meanwhile went out without any editors named in the masthead.

Reporters Without Borders has managed to piece together the events at "Xin Jing Bao" from accounts provided by its journalists. One if its reporters had this to say:

"The announcement of Sun Xuedong's dismissal caused a great deal of turmoil among the staff. Seven of my colleagues spontaneously put down their tools in protest and left the office. Others meanwhile thought it was the end of the newspaper and tried to rescue copies. Sun asked all the journalists to go back to work at once. One of the strikers replied: 'It's out of the question. That would be like being a traitor.'

"We were already talking of a 'media revolution' when Sun fainted as a result of the immense pressure. He was put on an artificial respirator. In the meantime, word of the dismissals reached the foreign news agencies.

"All day, Mr. Chao, a very conservative envoy from 'Guangming Ribao', tried to restore order among us in the name of the Chinese Communist Party. Without success."

Other accounts talk of journalists in tears, unable to go back to work. At least 100 employees staged an all-out strike, which is extremely rare in the Chinese media.

Despite the censorship, there have been rumblings of discontent in blogs and chat rooms frequented by "Xin Jing Bao" journalists. "When a newspaper's editor is an imbecile, his staff will also be stupid," said one journalist using 'House of the North' as his pseudonym. "There will be self-censorship at all levels. Our newspaper will have no more decent articles."

A reporter with the arts and culture section said most of the staff were very sad because their editors were "sincere, honest and rigorous." Another Internet user wrote that "a liberal newspaper has no chance in China," recalling that "Xin Jing Bao" used to call itself, "The newspaper that talks about everything".

Society section editor Chen Feng, who is famous for writing about the death of a Guangzhou student while being tortured, said on the Internet that, "nothing will be the same as before."

The dismissed editors have also expressed their attachment to the newspaper. "The entire staff has always been very dedicated to this newspaper, without any personal ambition," one of the dismissed deputy editors, Li Duoyu, wrote. "Once the storm has passed, will calm return? Will the journalists again dare to develop their ideas as freely and sincerely as in the past?"

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