The Hubei provincial party committee, led by a controversial official who once seized a reporter's recorder during an interview, has ordered local media to stop investigating events outside the province.
The order was reported by the Guangming Daily on December 29 and immediately sparked criticism from the online community. The official newspaper said the committee had 'clearly ordered media in Hubei not to supervise other places, or to conduct interviews in other provinces', in response to a document recently issued by central propaganda chiefs on standardising reporting.
Li Hongzhong, pictured, who is now the provincial party chief, previously outraged the public by scolding a reporter and seizing her digital recorder during the 2010 National People's Congress, when he was still the governor of Hubei.
The Guangming Daily report said that by better standardising reporting in accordance with the central government document, media would have 'conveyed the voices of the party and government, reflected people's needs, controlled the direction of social opinions and improved their credibility and influence'.
Online searches for the document were unsuccessful.
Ye Yong, a lawyer with the Beijing Declaration Law Firm, interpreted the order as: 'Brother provinces and cities: we won't air your dirty laundry in public. To be fair, please do the same favour for me.'
Another lawyer, Yin Fuqiang, from the Longan Law Firm, said the order violated the constitution. 'The constitution says all Chinese citizens have the right to criticise and give advice to any government department or its staff members, not just to those in their own provinces or cities,' he wrote in his microblog at T.sohu.com. 'Judging from the environment for the press today, supervision by local media is basically impossible. It's basically the same as 'no supervision'.'
Coincidentally, Hubei's new rule was soon followed by the birth of a 'propaganda alliance' of five regions in northern China.
Offices responsible for external propaganda in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, signed an agreement yesterday to hold joint press conferences and to 'integrate propaganda resources', Xinhua reported.
Many interpreted the agreement as another example of local governments' brazen censorship and self-protection.
'An 'alliance' to get rid of each other's negative news,' one Sina microblogger mocked.
'It's surprising that such things are happening, though more and more people have been calling for press freedom and a Press Law,' another wrote.
However, not all provincial governments agree with the actions of Hubei and the other five regions. The Guiyang Evening News, an official newspaper of Guizhou province, ran an article questioning Hubei's order, calling it 'a piece of cloth that covers one's loins'.
'There are two reasons [for authorities to make such a decree]. One is to create a harmonious situation so they can ask for praise ,' it said. 'The other is that some local officials were involved in some 'negative events' themselves, and this enables them to escape liability.'