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China paper prints first issue since dispute

Latest edition of Southern Weekly contains no reference to editorial row, after deal on relaxing government censorship.
Last Modified: 10 Jan 2013 06:37

An influential weekly newspaper whose staff rebelled to protest against heavy-handed censorship by China's government officials has published its latest edition.

The issue of the Southern Weekly bore no hint of the dispute that erupted last week over a New Year's editorial that was rewritten to praise the Communist Party and that drove some staff to stop work in protest.

The publication came after a compromise that called for relaxing some intrusive controls but left lingering ill-will among some reporters and editors.

Still fuming, some editors and reporters tried late on Wednesday to insert a carefully-worded commentary praising the newspaper as a tribune of reform, but were rebuffed by management, an editor said.

The editor, who asked not to be named because he had been repeatedly warned not to talk to foreign media, described the mood among editorial staff as indignant.

He predicted that some staff would resign, either voluntarily out of anger or forced out by management.

"There's complete disappointment," the editor said.

The week-long fracas at the Southern Weekly evolved quickly from a row over censorship at one newspaper to a call for free speech and political reform across China, handing an unexpected test to the party leadership headed by Xi Jinping just two months into office.

Hopes that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship initially ran high. 

Internet microblogs were loaded with messages of support and liberal-minded academics wrote open letters.

Controls remain in place

Hundreds of people this week gathered outside the newspaper's offices off a busy street in the southern commercial centre of Guangzhou, waving signs that called for freedom of expression.

But expectations for change began fizzling out on Wednesday as a compromise to end the dispute took shape.

Under the deal, according to the editor and another staff member, editors and reporters would not be punished for protesting and stopping work, and propaganda officials would no longer directly censor content prior to publication - though many other long-standing controls to ensure party control would remain in place.

The outpouring challenged one of the key levers of party rule - its right to control the media and dictate content - and officials pushed back this week to reassert authority.

Police attempted on Thursday to prevent more of the protests outside the compound housing the Southern Weekly and its parent company, the Nanfang Media Group, in Guangzhou, a city long at the forefront of reforms.

About 30 police officers guarded the area and ordered reporters and any loiterers to move away, saying there had been complaints about obstructing traffic.

The Southern Weekly has been a standard-bearer for hard-edged reporting and liberal commentary since the 1990s.

Throughout, senior party politicians and propaganda functionaries have repeatedly attempted to rein in the newspaper, cashiering editors and reporters who breach often unstated limits.

Even if censorship largely remains intact, the stand off has showed the breadth of support independent-minded media like the Southern Weekly have among many Chinese - who are wired to the internet and increasingly sophisticated in their expectations of the government.

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