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Don't shoot the messenger

The latest censorship dispute must prompt Chinese leaders to change course.

india Updated: Jan 09, 2013 20:25 IST

Media officials in China frequently demote outspoken journalists for flouting censorship. Now staff at the freewheeling Guangdong-based Southern Weekly news magazine - also known as Southern Weekend - have published open letters demanding the ousting of provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen for his heavy-handed information control - with hundreds gathering at their office to demonstrate support, according to the Associated Press. If they succeed, they could galvanise the media to challenge press restrictions across the country. So what are their chances?

The journalists have three things going for them. The first is timing. Their protest was sparked when censors rewrote the publication's new year editorial on political reform as a paean to the Communist party. But that was just the latest example of journalists pushed to the limit by leaders orchestrating the power handoff from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. At the Committee to Protect Journalists, we have documented at least two additional cases where outspoken news outlets saw their staff overhauled to neuter critical reporting in 2012. Other journalists quit in frustration at escalating censorship. As party chief Xi Jinping prepares to become president in March, Chinese journalists have a unique opportunity to send a clear message to the incoming leadership - and test its response.

The media's second advantage is their colleagues. Journalists have publicly defended their rights even in China's restrictive media environment, and other outlets are defying propaganda orders to signal their support of demands for freedom. Headlines aggregated by the Sina News website formed an acrostic reading "Keep it up, Southern Weekly!". When officials ordered editors nationwide to reprint an article condemning the protest on Monday, many added the disclaimer that it did not represent their opinion. Even state-run newspapers struck conciliatory notes. "Old media regulatory policies cannot go on as they are now," wrote Beijing's Global Times.

The third boost to the protest is the internet, which has facilitated public debate on sensitive topics - such as government handling of disasters - in spite of censorship. Search engines that have blocked keyword searches for "Southern Weekend" pose no obstacle to China's most engaged web users, who deploy puns, images and homonyms to denote banned content. The debate has also flourished on homegrown social media platforms, such as Sina Weibo.

"This Weekend, don't rest," was the phrase Beijing-based Caijing newspaper used to reference the protest on its official Weibo account this week, according to the China Digital Times website. Others were more direct. "I don't play word games; I support the friends at Southern Weekend," the actor Chen Kui told 27 million followers.

This level of support may suggest that victory is within reach. But defying censorship is not the same as dismantling it. So far, censors are continuing to delete Weibo messages and accounts belonging to the most active supporters, according to international media reports. And as much as the party is touting transparency and anti-corruption - both inherently compatible with a free press -there is no sign yet of a change in media policy.