Guangdong media silent over air hostess row

Why were Guangdong outlets - unlike Xinhua and People's Daily - unable to investigate the recent row involving a flight attendant?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 4:20am

A Guangzhou-based army officer's alleged assault of an attendant on a China Southern Airlines flight late last month caused quite a stir on the internet, but media outlets in Guangdong - once known for their outspokenness - largely ignored it.

That would hardly be surprising, given the muzzling of several Guangdong-based newspapers in recent months ahead of the Communist Party's once-in-a-decade leadership change, expected some time next month.

But eyebrows were raised when state-run Xinhua and the party mouthpiece People's Daily jointly launched an internet-based campaign to seek the truth behind the incident and criticised a Guangzhou district government for attempting to cover up the scandal.

It started with a microblog post on August 29 by Zhou Yumeng , a flight attendant with China Southern who complained that she had been assaulted by Fang Daguo , a People's Liberation Army political commissar attached to the Yuexiu district's armed forces department, and his wife in a row over luggage.

Two days later, the Yuexiu district's publicity office announced the results of an investigation into the incident, saying that Fang had not assaulted Zhou, although family members had "pushed and shoved" her; nor did he try to bully or intimidate Zhou when she reported the incident to police.

The announcement was immediately challenged in cyberspace, with Xinhua and People's Daily, in a rare move by state-run media, leading efforts to track down witnesses - eventually leading to Fang's suspension.

The result, hailed by internet users as a victory against abuse of power by military officials, could not hide the fact that Guangdong newspapers ran almost nothing but the official line.

Only Nanfang Daily, the party mouthpiece in Guangdong, ran a brief report on its website saying that police had interviewed Fang and Zhou and had promised to investigate the case.

A harsh criticism posted on the microblog of Xinhua's Guangdong bureau was soon deleted. The post said: "Covering up for someone's shameful behaviour only because of his identity [as a military officer] will actually hurt the image of that whole group. An 'almighty god' may have the power to silence all the newspapers, but don't forget that in the era of social media, there are always people brave enough to speak the truth."

Song Zhibiao , a veteran commentator, said the incident showed yet again that Guangdong's media was gradually becoming irrelevant.

In July, the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, a leading liberal newspaper, was forced to pull eight pages of detailed coverage of a disastrous flood in Beijing at the last minute.

New Express, also based in Guangzhou, saw its editor-in-chief removed and several main sections axed in July. The newspaper is now only allowed to report news from Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta.

The tight control of the local media stands in stark contrast to provincial party chief Wang Yang's expressed desire in recent months for Guangdong to be a pioneer of reform.

Some journalists in Guangdong blame the tightening censorship on newly appointed provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen , who moved to Guangzhou in May from Beijing, where he served as a Xinhua vice-president. But others say the drastic steps he has taken must have been backed by Wang.