Censorship in China

Media crisis spreads as row erupts over state meddling at Beijing News

Beijing News editor tries to resign as his staff confront propaganda officials forcing them to print article slamming Southern Weekly

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 10:32am

Another respected mainland newspaper yesterday became embroiled in the row over editorial intervention by propaganda authorities, just as officials temporarily resolved a crisis at Guangzhou's Southern Weekly.

Controversy erupted at Beijing News when it was forced to reprint an editorial criticising the Southern Weekly, and saw its publisher, Dai Zigeng , verbally resign as editorial staff confronted propaganda officials. Sources said Dai's resignation was not accepted.

Journalists and people close to the paper said they were furious that Yan Liqiang , a deputy director of Beijing's propaganda office, went to its newsroom on Tuesday, demanding that the newspaper reprint the editorial, originally published by the Global Times on Monday.

The editorial said the controversy at Southern Weekly following alterations to its New Year's edition had been provoked by external forces that were pushing the mainland media to confront the government. It also questioned the credibility of open letters issued by the Southern Weekly's editorial department.

Many mainland newspapers reprinted the editorial on Tuesday, but several, including the influential News, did not.

Beijing propaganda chief Lu Wei was not in the newsroom during the confrontation but talked to Dai over the phone, and the two had heated exchanges on Tuesday night. Dai said the paper would not run the editorial and solicited the opinion of staff, who supported his decision. But journalists were later told the paper could either reprint the editorial or close down.

It eventually reprinted the editorial on page A20 yesterday, but the page editor refused to sign off on the page in protest.

Journalists at the paper posted pictures on their microblogs showing colleagues weeping. Some were quickly deleted by online censors.

"I found it a barbaric act for propaganda officials to storm into a newsroom, forcing the publication of an article and threatening the journalists that the paper might be shut down," a source close to the paper said.

Other such sources said the order to reprint the editorial had come from the party's central propaganda authority, rather than Beijing officials who did not want a repeat of the Southern Weekly controversy in the capital.

The sources said Dai had verbally resigned, but his resignation was turned down by Lu, who visited the newsroom yesterday afternoon, with editorial operations proceeding as normal.

Dai attended a forum on economic and urban development yesterday.

Mainland media-industry observers denounced the action.

"We sincerely hope [ Beijing News] can faithfully record the progress of our time, speak for the people… and serve its duty in promoting [social] progress, good governance with rule of law, and a civilised society," Dai said.

Police cars were seen outside the newspaper office yesterday, a sign that the authorities were concerned that journalists might stage a protest or that members of the public might rally in their support, one source said.

A media insider said: "Many people in the central propaganda office still have an outdated mindset and do not know what's going on in cyberspace."

Beijing News, along with Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, are among the most respected newspapers on the mainland because of their outspoken comments and reports on sensitive issues.

After its transfer to the direct control of the Beijing party committee in 2011, there were widespread fears that the newspaper's bold reporting would be reined in, and that did appear to be the case last year.