BEIJING (AP) — Free-speech protesters in masks squared off against flag-waving communist loyalists in a southern Chinese city Tuesday as a dispute over censorship at a newspaper spilled into the broader population, with authorities shutting microblog accounts of supporters of the paper.
What started out as a conflict between journalists at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly and a top censor over a New Year's editorial has rapidly become a focal point driving public calls for the authoritarian Communist Party government to loosen its grip on information.
The dispute centers on how the editorial, originally calling for political reform, was transformed into a tribute praising the Communist Party. Scholars have signed open letters calling for the censor's dismissal, celebrities and other supporters of the journalists are speaking out for the paper on microblogs — drawing a crackdown by authorities — and hundreds of people gathered for a second day outside the publication's office bearing flowers and signs in support.
The paper's editorial committee was in negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office, according to a Southern Weekly editor. The editor spoke on condition of anonymity because of an internal directive not to talk to the foreign media.
Propaganda officials want the newspaper to publish — as per normal — on Thursday but editors are negotiating over whether to do so, and the terms under which they would be willing, for example, if they could include a letter to readers explaining the incident, the editor said.
The committee is also pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper's content prior to publication, the editor said. The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing, and should refrain from taking issue with content until after publication, the editor said.