Protesters gathered on Monday at the offices of a Guangdong newspaper at the centre of a censorship row, in a rare public demonstration on the mainland in support of media freedom.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the Southern Weekend's - also known as the Southern Weekly - offices in Guangzhou, according to online reports, with one banner reading: “We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy”.
The demonstration came after censors last Thursday blocked a new year article in the popular liberal newspaper which called for the realisation of a “dream of constitutionalism in China” to protect rights.
All mainland media organisations are subject to instructions from government propaganda departments, which often suppress news seen as negative by the Communist Party, although some publications take a more critical stance.
On Friday a liberal journal’s website was shut down after it published an appeal for leaders to guarantee constitutional rights, including freedom of speech and assembly.
The Beijing-based Annals of the Yellow Emperor, which has links with senior retired Communist officials, had argued in its article that the constitution lays out a road map for political reform.
Several influential mainland journalists have also had their social networking accounts deleted in recent weeks.
The crackdown on freedom of expression comes despite pledges of change from the new Communist leadership, headed by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, which has promised a more open style of governance since the party congress in November.
The censorship at the Southern Weekend sparked online uproar from bloggers, including the newspaper’s staff.
Some internet reports said some employees went on strike on Sunday after senior editors took control of the newspaper’s posts on Weibo, the mainland’s version of Twitter, from day-to-day journalists.
Searches for Southern Weekend on the popular microblogging site were blocked on Monday.
An editorial in the Chinese-language edition of the state-run Global Times, which has links to the party, said Beijing was determined to maintain the status quo when it came to the media.
“No matter whether these people [angered over the censorship] are happy or not, a common sense is that it is impossible to have the kind of ‘free media’ they dream of under China’s social and political reality today,” it said.
“The media will by no means become a ‘political special area’ in China.”
The media would “undoubtedly be a loser” if it sought to fight the government, it said.
The commentary did not run in the paper’s English-language edition.
It followed an open letter from staff at the Southern Weekend which – in an unusually vocal and public response to the authorities’ moves – called for the resignation of provincial propaganda official Tuo Zhen, who was said to have removed the new year message and replaced it with a weaker article.
Another letter, signed by scores of prominent academics from across China, emerged over the weekend. This also called for the immediate removal of Tuo and for more press freedom.
A detailed account of the strike by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project said journalists had also objected to a message by senior editors that the replacement new year editorial had been “written by editors at the paper”.
Asked about the Southern Weekend article at a regular press briefing last week, a foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing said: “There is no so-called news censorship in China.”
China came 174th in a list of 179 countries ranked for press freedom in 2011-12 by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.