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Unprecedented purge of eight staff at newspaper that "covered what the others did not dare report"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned a purge of staff during the first week of July 2007 at "Minzhu yu Fazhi Shibao" ("Democracy and Legal Times"), a weekly specialising in legal news that is considered to be one of China's ten most influential newspapers.

"Censorship takes different forms in China," the press freedom organisation said. "Closures of websites, blogs or newspapers are the most visible of the many press freedom violations, while the purge of 'Minzhu yu Fazhi Shibao' is typical of the more insidious methods used by the authorities against outspoken publications."

Reporters Without Borders added: "The authorities regularly carry out purges of editors and reporters using restructuring or alleged embezzlement as a pretext for silencing liberal newspapers. The Communist Party is tightening its ideological grip on the eve of its next congress."

Eight of "Minzhu yu Fazhi Shibao"'s editors and journalists were fired last week, including former publisher Bian Tiansong, deputy editor Chen Qiqiang and another member of the editorial staff, Zhou Guoxin. The authorities have not made any comment and little information has emerged about the dismissals.

The story was broken by Boxun, a Chinese-language website based abroad, and was picked up by Radio Free Asia, which tried to contact the newspaper's staff. It succeeded only in reaching someone identifying himself as Zhou. When asked to comment on the simultaneous dismissal of eight of its journalists, Zhou replied: "Isn't this something completely normal? The wheel turns. They have been fired. They will find other jobs."

A "Zhongguo Haiyangbao" journalist meanwhile reported that websites were ordered by the government not to post "Minzhu yu Fazhi Shibao" reports prominently. "'Minzhu yu Fazhi Shibao' covered what the other newspapers did not dare report," he said.

Among the sensitive stories covered by the weekly in recent months was the case of Lan Chengzhang, a journalist who was beaten to death on the orders of a mine owner, and alleged corruption in a court in Shenyang, in the northeastern province of Liaoning (see IFEX alerts of 3 July and 25, 23 and 17 January 2007).

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