Southern Weekly's parent firm slammed for 'betraying' free-speech protesters

Staff at Southern Weekly say activist facing trial was within his rights to support their stoppage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 10:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 6:02pm

A group of journalists working for the company that publishes the Southern Weekly newspaper have launched a campaign in support of a civil rights activist facing trial for backing their strike a year ago.

At least 23 journalists at the Nanfang Media group posted statements on their weibo accounts disputing that Yang Maodong had broken public order laws. Two former editorial staff also posted similar statements.

The move comes after Yang's lawyer said legal papers showed the newspaper group has been giving evidence against his client.

Yang, who is better known by his pen name Guo Feixiong, is to face trial on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order".

A year ago editorial staff at the Southern Weekly engaged in a rare stand-off with the authorities over alterations to the newspaper's New Year editorial.

It was changed from a piece calling for political reform and respect for the country's constitution to a tribute praising the Communist Party.

It was the first time in 20 years that editorial staff on a major newspaper openly staged a strike against government censorship.

It attracted hundreds of supporters from all over the mainland, including Yang, who took part in protests outside the company's offices.

The journalists posting online said the demonstrations had caused no disruption and had not stopped people from entering the building.

An editor, who asked not to be named, said the journalists' aim in posting the comments was to help Yang.

"We hope to express our views and help the defence," the editor said.

The journalists who joined the campaign at the weekend have not been reprimanded, but some fear they may be punished later.

The Southern Weekly's chief editor, Huang Can , and the Nanfang group's editor-in-chief, Zhang Dongming, declined to comment yesterday.

An editor at the Southern Weekly said censorship at the paper had been reduced over the past year. The journalists ended their strike on January 9 last year and later reached an agreement with the management to reduce government interference.

"For each story, there used to be six censors going through it before it was published. Now it is down to two or three," the editor said. The paper also no longer has to seek approval from the provincial propaganda office before publishing major stories.

But another member of staff said the newspaper would steer clear of any discussion of the constitution in its coming New Year editorial.

"Just like the Southern Weekly has always been doing, we will use stories of ordinary people to illustrate the relations between individuals and the wider environment," the editor said.

Yang was detained in August. A US State department official said in October the Obama administration was deeply concerned by his detention and called for his release.