Chinese newspaper in eye of censorship storm back on sale

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Story highlights

  • Southern Weekly was not widely available in Guangzhou where it is published
  • The newspaper's journalists accused officials of heavy-handed censorship
  • Protesters gathered outside the paper's offices this week demanding more press freedom
  • Thursday edition reprinted People's Daily editorial that regulation must follow times

The Chinese newspaper at the center of a censorship storm hit newsstands in the capital Thursday for the first time since journalists went on strike in protest against apparent editorial interference from the government.

However, the Southern Weekly was not widely available in southern Guangdong province, where it is published.

The controversy surfaced last week when a group of former Southern Weekly journalists said, in an open letter, that a local propaganda chief had dramatically altered the paper's traditional New Year message, which had called for certain reforms and greater respect for constitutional rights.

Read: Chinese journalists in rare protest

While newspapers in China are often subject to censorship, the journalists wrote in the letter that the changes, which included praise for the Communist Party, were excessive and took place after editors had signed off on the final proofs.

Victor Li, a Chinese writer living in Beijing, told CNN China's new leadership would have taken a dim view of these calls by a newspaper known for pushing the boundaries.

Read: Censorship protest a test for China

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"For these new bosses, what they do not need from Southern Weekly is that kind of advice! Just think about it, they have been waiting for this moment for a very long time and finally they are in charge.

"They believe they know what they should do and when to do it as well as how to do it. They do not want to be told what to do by a local newspaper!"

But soon enough, editors, reporters and their supporters protested on the Internet, on social media and in front of the office complex of the embattled media group.

Protesters carried posters calling for press freedom. Some came with flowers to "mourn the death of press freedom," while others wore facemasks to symbolize the gagging of the media.

Even celebrities voiced their support via their micro-blogging accounts.

Han Han, one of the most influential contemporary writers and bloggers in China, recently wrote on his blog post: "The Southern Weekly has informed me a lot as a reader. It gives power to the weak and hope to the hopeless. So, in its moment of weakness and desperation, I hope we can all lend them some strength, even if just a little, and help it carry on."

Chinese actor Chen Kun tweeted: "I am not that deep and don't play with words, I support the friends at Southern Weekly."

Others used more subtle language.

"Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter," posted Li Bingbing, an actress with some 19 million followers on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service.

Another actress Yao Chen, who has more than 31 million followers, used a quote from Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "One word of truth outweighs the whole world."

The street protests, although small in scale, posed a challenge to the Chinese leaders. Twenty or so years ago, the public would not have known of the controversy if the authorities had wished to cover it up. They could simply have arrested protesters as trouble makers and shut down the newspapers. Even if it were publicly known, it would have been difficult for the embattled journalists to secure public support.

But with an estimated 400 million Internet users and some 200 million micro-bloggers, this protest gained traction.

Some media reports suggest the authorities may have reached a compromise with the protesters -- an editor may be replaced, the Guangdong propaganda chief has been absolved of responsibility, the protesters will not be harassed, and the paper will not be shut down. Though this has still to be confirmed.

Yet the fact an earlier commentary from the People's Daily, the communist party's official mouthpiece, was republished in Thursday's edition may support these reports. Tucked in a small corner of the paper, it says "it's fundamental that the party regulates the press but its method of regulation needs to be advanced and must keep pace with the times."