The ongoing public tussle between government censors and editors of the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly is a rare breakdown of the otherwise mostly hidden ways to manage China’s state-owned media. Media watcher Jeremy Goldkorn explains for the BBC why the censors went too far in this case.
So what happened at the Southern Weekly to spur its beleaguered journalists to finally walk off the job?
This time, it seems that Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief overseeing the paper, was the one who crossed the line.
“Tuo Zhen did not stick to the protocol that people are used to,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese media and the internet.
The unwritten rules governing the Chinese media vary from outlet to outlet, but all journalists and editors follow the same basic system.Sometimes, censorship instructions come in phone calls directly from Beijing, ordering editors how to deal with sensitive stories.
However, on a daily basis, individual journalists submit content to their editors, who are then tasked with tweaking the content to meet the needs of the local propaganda department.
Mr Goldkorn explains that the relationship between editorial staff and propaganda officials is an important one because newspapers must stay in the good graces of the censors so that their annual licences can be renewed. Without a licence, the paper must shut down…
“In the past, they have stopped the presses or they have pre-censored things before it has got to the stage of going to press, or there has been trouble after something has gotten printed,” Mr Goldkorn said.He added that exact details of Mr Tuo’s transgressions have yet to emerge, “but it seems unusual when the person in charge of propaganda for the province actually goes to the newspaper office and actually is in charge of ensuring the change before it goes to print”…
Mr Goldkorn believes that even if Mr Tuo remains in his position, Southern Weekly will also continue to soldier on.
“I don’t think there’s a single person in the Chinese government committed to media liberalisation, but I think there are people who recognise that there are some voices… that are useful to have around for society. It would be extreme of them to completely crush it.”
- Liberalizing internet not on the political agenda – Jeremy Goldkorn (chinaspeakersbureau.info)
- A Rare Free-Speech Fight Erupts Over China Censors (businessweek.com)
- Hundreds protest censorship in China (sacbee.com)
- Censorship anger a test for China (edition.cnn.com)
- Southern Weekly negotiates with government amid protests – South China Morning Post (scmp.com)