Journalists at an outspoken newspaper in Guangdong challenged the provincial propaganda authorities yesterday after the paper was forced to run a commentary glorifying the Communist Party and drop an article calling for proper implementation of the constitution.
In a rare, open challenge, journalists at the Southern Weekly said they were outraged that the propaganda office ordered changes to the paper's first edition of the new year, just a day before its publication yesterday, without the consent of the page editor who had already signed off on the page and left work.
Some were furious that an introductory message headlined "Pursuing dreams", which said Chinese people were closer to achieving their dreams because of the hard work of the party, was forced into the package. They said they believed it had come from provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen and also complained that it contained factual errors.
They accused the propaganda office of "raping" the paper's editorial autonomy. While recognising that the paper could not refuse to run the introductory message, they remained defiant, opening a microblog account and issuing an open letter - later removed - expressing their frustration. About 15 of them were subjected to restrictions on their use of microblogs after discussing the incident at work.
"We demand an investigation into the incident, which has seen proper editorial procedure severely violated and a major factual error printed," the open letter said.
It is rare for mainland journalists to collectively and openly challenge the authorities, given that it might cost them their jobs or subject them to official harassment. But a journalist working at the paper said most editorial staff supported the action and were contemplating the next move, declining to say whether there would be a campaign to gather signatures.
"We have no other way to express our anger," another journalist at the paper said.
Su Yongtong, an editor at the paper, said on his microblog that the paper had planned to run a commentary entitled "China's dream, the dream of constitutionalism" as a New Year greeting, saying that people would only be able to pursue their dreams when the constitution was realised.
The piece was toned down to a much shorter piece that carried the headline "Dreams are our promise to what we need to accomplish".
But Su said the title of the published piece was changed to, "We are closer than ever before to our dreams". References to calls for democracy were also taken out in the final version.
In the open letter, the journalists said the introductory message was factually flawed because it started off by saying that flood control work by Yu the Great happened 2,000 years ago, but Yu was a legendary ruler in ancient China dating back to 2,200BC.
The open letter also criticised the propaganda office for taking out articles discussing anti-Japanese protests and the heaviest rain to lash Beijing in six decades in July.
Journalists at the paper said they believed the order was from Tuo, a former vice-president of state-run Xinhua, and asked him to stop meddling in the paper.
"I had previously worked for a newspaper at which we needed to submit articles for the authorities' approval before publication, but I think it's absurd for a propaganda chief to force the media under his reign to print his article," said one journalist at the paper.
The New Year greeting is a long-held tradition of the paper, with articles calling on citizens to stand firm for their rights.
But people close to the paper said they feared it would be silenced.