Hundreds of supporters of Guangzhou's outspoken Southern Weekly newspaper protested outside its headquarters yesterday in support of staff involved in a row with the provincial propaganda authorities.
Staff have been engaged in a stand-off with authorities over alterations to the newspaper's New Year edition last week, including the headline of an editorial that was changed to say "We are closer than ever before to our dreams", and the addition of an introductory message praising the Communist Party.
In a rare exposé, a retired censor at the paper revealed, in his blog, details of how censorship at the paper had become draconian since the arrival of a new provincial propaganda chief in May.
Up to 300 protesters presented flowers outside the newspaper's headquarters in Guangzhou and raised a banner calling for the resignation of provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen and more media freedom.
The protesters, many of them university students, said the changes, which appeared in the newspaper last Thursday, were a signal that the propaganda authorities' interference in the media had reached an intolerable level.
"We demand a free media and other reforms such as democracy," said Guangzhou resident Zhou Runan .
The paper's management issued a short statement through its microblog saying that the introductory message had been written by staff. But editorial staff said the explanation was flawed. They issued a statement detailing how the alterations were made, based on a meeting with chief editor Huang Can and deputy chief editor Wu Xiaofeng on Saturday. Some even pledged to strike.
The statement said Yang Jian , party secretary of the Nanfang Media Group, and a news division director demanded changes to the editorial package on January 1.
Yang demanded the addition of a few lines commenting positively on the party and its opening-up policy. Huang asked Wu to draft the message. Wu submitted it to the news division director, who later sent back to Wu a finalised draft, which was ultimately printed as the introductory message. This was done without the editors' consent.
The staff said numerous changes were made to the package during its preparation. One notable change was self-censorship of an editorial calling for the proper implementation of the constitution, because Huang feared that submitting the article for approval would lead to the whole package being dropped.
Zeng Li, a retired censor, wrote on his blog that the authorities' grip on the weekly had tightened since Tuo moved to Guangdong in May. Report topics had to be approved by the propaganda office, and on one occasion an order to censor a story arrived after the paper had been sent for printing, he wrote.
Zeng said that in the past two years up to eight stories were killed by an in-house censor for each edition and more than a dozen were substantially revised.
Editorial staff at the newspaper said they were meeting the management. They demanded an independent team be set up to investigate the incident.
A commentary in the Global Times said the introductory message was not written by Guangdong's propaganda office, and accused "outside forces" of pushing the mainland media to openly confront the government.
But a commentary in People's Daily said propaganda authorities should change in accordance with the times.
Mainland observers said the authorities would not implicate Tuo even if he had erred, to avoid seemingly bowing to pressure.