Sale of stake in outspoken Beijing News may turn it into ‘propaganda mouthpiece’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:54pm

Beijing’s municipal propaganda department has taken over a stake in the city’s outspoken Beijing News daily newspaper, ending a decade of partial ownership by the Southern Media Group in which the paper did not shy away from reporting controversial issues.

The Publicity Department of the Beijing Municipal Communist Party Committee has acquired a 49 per cent stake in the daily publication from the Southern Media Group for 294 million yuan (HK$374 million), according to an internal agreement dated Friday.

The sale of the stake marks a complete handover of the paper to institutions with conservative agendas, observers say. The other stakeholder in the Beijing News is the conservative Guangming Daily, a leading party mouthpiece.

For Wen Yunchao, a New York-based media commentator, the sale brought to a close the long-running efforts by Beijing authorities to bring the outspoken paper under control. “This is clearly a reaction to the deregulation of the media, or even a step back,” he said. “The role of the media returns to that of a propaganda mouthpiece.”

The Beijing News was established as an innovative joint subsidiary of the Guangdong-based Southern Media Group and the Guangming Daily in 2003. The alliance between the feisty media group with private capital and the conservative paper relying on mandatory subscriptions was described in the South China Morning Post as having broken “all the rules of publishing a newspaper in China” at the time. 

Like the Beijing Times, a publication established two years earlier, the Beijing News quickly attracted attention with its bold coverage, partly because was not subject to supervision by municipal authorities.

But backlashes soon followed. Its chief editor Cheng Yizhong was detained within a year of operation, and in 2005 the sacking of his successor Yang Bin sparked a strike and mass walk-out by the paper’s journalists.

In 2011, the municipal propaganda department announced it would assume editorial control of the paper as well as the Beijing Times, sparking concerns over whether the two of the nation’s most renowned papers have been gagged.

Only a year later, the Beijing News published a cryptic message supporting Southern Media Group journalists protesting against censorship at their Guangzhou headquarters. The paper was then forced to publish an editorial condemning the journalists.

Many internet users shared the paper’s Saturday front page over the weekend. It showed actors in a traditional theatre performance in imperial palace clothing. Two of them are seeing bowing to the emperor as he rolls past them on roller blades.