Journalists at Guangzhou's outspoken Southern Weekly newspaper agreed yesterday to return to work as Guangdong's provincial party chief stepped in to mediate a rare confrontation with the propaganda authorities over interference in its editorial operations, sources said.
A source close to the newspaper's editorial staff said that Hu Chunhua, a rising political star who took up his new position as the province's party secretary only last month, personally stepped into the talks between reporters and the management.
The stand-off would not escalate while the negotiations were continuing, the source said.
Another two sources, also close to the newspaper's editorial staff, said reporters decided to return to work after meetings with management yesterday.
Reuters also reported on Hu's personal intervention, citing a source close to the provincial Communist Party committee.
It said under Hu's deal newspaper workers would end their strike and return to work, the paper would print as normal this week and most staff would not face punishment.
The source added that Hu had implied that Tuo Zhen, the province propaganda chief, would eventually be removed, but that he could not go immediately in order to save face.
The crisis was triggered by changes - ordered by propaganda authorities - to the newspaper's New Year edition published last week, which prompted public demonstrations and some journalists to go on strike.
Details of the agreement were not known and journalists at the paper said they were not allowed to talk to foreign media. They said discussing the case could be disadvantageous for them and that both sides did not want to aggravate the situation.
The newspaper's management could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The central authorities had earlier summoned media editors to a meeting and ordered the publication of commentaries backing the Communist Party's control of the media.
In an order sent to senior editors, the central propaganda authority said the party still had absolute control over the media and that Tuo would not be held responsible for the saga, amid mounting calls for him to step down, sources said.
Journalists at the paper had earlier said they were particularly furious that a message praising the party had been forced onto the paper's front page, and that the headline of an editorial was changed to: "We are closer than ever before to our dreams".
They said the alterations were ordered by the propaganda authorities and done without their consent. Up to 100 protesters gathered outside the newspaper's office in Guangzhou for a second day yesterday, demanding an end to such censoring.
The journalists' decision to return to work came amid signs the central authorities might blame the incident on "external forces" - an accusation often used to smear civil rights campaigns such as the protests against land requisitions in Wukan village in 2011.
Mainland media editors said the authorities had made no explicit statement voicing such an accusation, but many mainland newspapers reprinted a commentary by the Global Times that said the incident was provoked by outside forces.
However, several papers, including Beijing News, the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post, as well as Guangzhou Daily and Southern Weekly's sister paper, Southern Metropolis Daily, did not run the commentary.
The commentary noted that blind activist Chen Guangcheng, now in the United States, had voiced support for Southern Weekly.
It also said that that some activists outside of China were hoping for a confrontation between mainland media and the authorities.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that media censorship was incompatible with China's aspiration to build a modern, information-based society and economy.