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Show of courage by Chinese reformist weekly's journalists

(RSF/IFEX) - 7 January 2013 - Reporters Without Borders pays tribute to the courage of the Chinese journalists who are protesting against restrictions on freedom of information following the censorship of an editorial in the Guangzhou-based reformist weekly Nanfang Zhoumo [Southern Weekly] on 3 January.

Headlined "The Chinese dream, the dream of constitutionalism," the original version talked of hopes of change for the New Year and called for a constitutional government. It was purged of its critical content and prefaced by a propagandistic introduction.

The police allowed demonstrations to take place today outside the Nanfang Media Group's headquarters in what was seen as a sign that the authorities are responding very cautiously to the anti-censorship protests.

"The Chinese media are at a historic crossroads today," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "There have been unprecedented protests against heavy-handed censorship and they show that Chinese journalists, when they act collectively with resolve, are capable of putting pressure on the country's authorities.

"This act of censorship is indicative of the government's habitual contempt for media freedom, although it is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. It is unacceptable that the content of a respected newspaper such as Nanfang Zhoumo should be censored by the Communist Party without warning, because it dared to talk about the rule of law and civil liberties.

"The party's new general secretary, Xi Jinping, who is due to become president in March, needs to take stock of the consequences of censorship in China and set about ensuring that the muzzling of political debate is abolished for good. And an investigation is needed to shed light on all aspects of this case."

Deloire added: "The authorities must allow the newspaper to publish the original version of the editorial and must put an immediate end to the censorship of comments about the affair that are being posted online."

According to various sources, Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen made significant changes to the editorial prior to publication - eliminating all the implicit criticism of the current government and the Communist Party - without any of the newspaper's editors being told. He also allegedly drafted an introduction to the editorial.

The newspaper's deputy editor, Wang Genghui, condemned this as a "violation of the rules."

The online debate became even more heated after a message was posted on the newspaper's Weibo account last night, denying that there had been any censorship. Dictated by editor-in-chief Huang Can, it was possibly the result of direct pressure on Nanfang Zhoumo's management.

The micro-blogging website Weibo has meanwhile again served as a significant tool for circumventing censorship. The original editorial has been repeatedly retweeted on Weibo while a number of the newspaper's journalists posted messages denouncing its replacement.

Several of them had their Weibo accounts closed after announcing their intention to begin a strike today and posting an open letter condemning the censorship. At the same time, a petition is now circulating online calling for Tuo Zhen's resignation.

In a separate development, the website of a liberal Chinese newspaper called The Annals of the Yellow Emperor was closed on 4 January, a few days after it posted an appeal to the government to guarantee constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

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