Modern China’s first open war over freedom of speech accelerated

Alia | January 6th, 2013 - 4:02 pm

When something is referred to as an “incident” in China, you know that ugly things have happened. For example, the Tiananmen Square incident…The forced replacement of Southern Weekly’s 2013 New Year greeting piece is now an “incident” and still evolving, with several official Southern Weekly Weibo accounts being deleted and editors on strike.This is probably the first time in communist China when journalists openly fight for freedom of speech against the government. Whether or not the “Southern Weekly incident” can bring significant change is still unknown, but as of now, the paper is shouting loud to everybody in the country: “It’s war and let’s fight!.”

Southern Weekly

Southern Weekly has always been the most outspoken and influential liberal media in China. The weekly newspaper has a tradition to publish a “New Year Messages” editorial at the beginning of every year. This year, however, the paper’s original piece “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism,” which called for rule by the country’s constitution, was forced to be replaced with a propaganda piece glorifying the Party. To make it worse, the propaganda piece had an egregious error about Chinese historic figure Da Yu – it was 2000 years wrong.

The bland interference of government with editorial autonomy has caused an uproar among Southern Weekly journalists, its readers and liberal intellectuals across the country. On Jan 4, former journalists working at the newspaper signed an open letter, asking Tou Zhen, propaganda chief of Guangdong province who ordered the replacement, to resign. Those who currently work at the newspaper also voiced their anger and frustration through their Sina Weibo accounts (China’s leading microblogging service). As a result, the Weibo accounts of more than 10 Southern Weekly journalists were banned from updating or deleted. But things have gotten even worse today…. If this is modern China’s first open war over freedom of speech between journalists and the government, then the war is definitely accelerating…at a blazing speed.

Today at 9:20 pm tonight, the official Weibo account of Southern Weekly issued the following public notice:

“To readers: The New Year Messages editorial on the newspaper’s New Year special edition on January 3 was written by one of our editors as part of a special feature called “pursuing dreams.” The cover story was drafted by an internal staff who is in charge of the newspaper. Related online rumors are untrue. Due to limited time and careless work, the piece has some errors. We hereby apologize to our readers.”

Only 2 minutes earlier at 9:18 pm, 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.”

Minutes later at 9:23 pm, the official Weibo account of Southern Weekly Culture (the account has already been deleted by Sina) confirmed that “Southern Weekly’s official Weibo account @南方周末 no long belongs to the paper.”

Less than an hour later, 东方愚, journalist and editor at Southern Weekly, announced that a strike started:

“The strike is on. Singed open letter is coming soon.”

Another journalist at the paper Nomilk echoed: “We have no choice but to strike.”

Less than 2 hours later, the official Weibo account of Southern Weekly Economy (the account has already been deleted by Sina) put out the following joint announcement signed by about 100 journalists and editors currently working at the paper:

“The official Weibo account of Souther Weekly (@南方周末) has been forcedly taken over. The “To Readers” announcement published by that account at 9:30pm, Jan 6, 2013 told no truth. We will gradually disclose accurate information through public channels.”

An earlier post (also deleted) by the Weibo account of Southern Weekly Economy briefly explained what has led to the mess now. Jan 5 evening, the paper had an emergent all-editors meeting. The plan was to set up an investigation team to work on an official report on the “Southern Weekly incidence,” which will be handed in to authorities later. But at the same time, the “authorities” pressured Southern Weekly to publish untrue announcement through its Weibo account, trying to blame an innocent editor for what have happened with the replaced piece. The request was: “To respect facts. Stop all interference before official investigation report is out. And to restore truth to history.”

The joint announcement was already deleted, but netizens are sharing it like crazy. The announcement  said that more signatures are coming. The action is no different from openly declaring war to the country’s long-standing censorship and media control. Xi Jinping, China’s new leader who has been seen as the country’s new hope for reform, surely didn’t expect such a New Year gift.

The Delhi rape is shaking India right now. Will this “rape the editorial” case shake China just like its neighbor? Probably, but all we can tell now is that netizens from all walks of life are showing their support for the Southern Weekly team – even homosexuals, the usually silent group in China, are calling for a 10 am gathering tomorrow at Southern Weekly headquarter to show support because the paper has spoken for them. For many people in China, the good and the evil, tonight may be a sleepless night.

College students showing signs of support

The joint announcement

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4 Responses to “Modern China’s first open war over freedom of speech accelerated”

  1. [...] the piece was significantly changed by local government propaganda official and subsequently led to strikes and protests of journalists, it’s the first sign that 2013 may be a chilling year for China’s intellectuals [...]

  2. joe says:

    There is free speech, and then there is stupidity. Everyone knows the rules, and certain topics should not be touched. The editors and journalists there deserve to be forever blacklisted for being idiots. No sympathy here.

  3. [...] via Modern China’s first open war over freedom of speech accelerated | Offbeat China. [...]

  4. Incidents. Plural of incident. Please fix then delete this message.

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