The row over the propaganda authorities' interference in the Southern Weekly newspaper deepened yesterday, with former journalists and interns at the paper calling for the resignation of Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen.
In a rare, direct confrontation with authorities, 51 of its former staff denounced Tuo's interference as "ignorant and excessive".
"In this era where we see growing open-mindedness, his actions are muddle-headed and careless," they said in an open letter. "Tuo is unable to hold his current position, and should be forced to resign and make an open apology."
The action by the former employees came after the newspaper's editorial staff issued an open letter demanding an investigation into alterations to its new year edition, published on Thursday, which staff blamed on Tuo.
The alterations, which staff said were done without their consent, saw an introductory message commenting positively on the Communist Party forced onto the front page. The headline of the package's commentary was amended to "We are closer than ever before to our dreams", along with other changes, including dropping articles about anti-Japanese protests.
The former employees said the changes were against party interests and its emphasis on opening up.
"We oppose this brutal media management style. This style partly originates from personal interest, and partly from bureaucracy. But this is catastrophic to the media and the party," it said.
Former Weekly staffer Xiao Shu , who signed the letter, said: "Usually, the propaganda chief in Guangdong would be more tolerant of the [province's] media and respect its open style."
In a similar move, 52 people who worked for the paper as interns over the past four years also issued an open letter demanding Tuo's resignation.
The journalism school of Nanjing University issued a statement condemning the interference as a "backward" step for press freedom and demanded an apology from officials.
Editorial staff, dozens of whom have been banned from using microblogs, said they were contemplating their next move.
The staff said the paper planned a commentary calling for proper implementation of the constitution. But it was replaced by a shorter piece that was headlined "Dreams are our promise to what we need to accomplish".
The staff were also furious because the introductory message had a factual error - it said flood control work by ancient ruler Yu the Great was done 2,000 years ago, instead of around 2000BC.
While most mainland media remained silent about the row, an editorial in the Global Times said old media regulatory policies could not continue but that it was unrealistic to have independent media on the mainland.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said China upholds press freedom. "There is no censorship of media in China," she said yesterday.
Meanwhile, Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan told a national publicity work meeting that officials should have a firm attitude in publicising the party's policies.