Chinese censor censured

There’s a Harry Belafonte song about how you can cage the singer, but not the song. That’s often the truth – but in China at the moment, it’s the words that have been impounded – and the authors who are still at liberty to protest. For now, at least.

Journalists at the Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekly, hailed as being one of the few publications brave enough to speak out with subtle criticisms of the government, have gone on strike in a protest against censorship.

The row was sparked last week when the paper's New Year message calling for reform  in the country, was changed by propaganda officials to be a smarmy polemic which praised the Communist Peoples’ Party – it’s a scenario that could be taken straight from the pages of Orwell.

It’s extremely rare for Chinese journalists to stage such a high-profile strike and risk imprisonment or other punishment. (In related news, they may no longer be risking internment in China’s notorious Re-education Through Labour camps if plans to abolish their use are to be believed).

Late last week, employees at Southern Weekly wrote an open letter to the provincial propaganda department demanding the resignation of Tuo Zhen, an official there.

"In this era where we see growing open-mindedness, his actions are muddle-headed and careless," said the letter, which was quickly removed from the internet, by censors.

The reaction from the new leader Xi Jingping will be monitored closely, as this is one of the first tests of his attitude to censorship and as a man who has cast himself as a moderate who is committed to opening China up, he risks appearing hypocritical. He could choose to get rid of the over-zealous censorship chief, as the protestors are calling for, or he could instead crack down on the protests.

 With the alleged expulsion of a New York Times journalist to kick off 2013, apparently over the paper’s revelations about the enormous wealth of the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, it does not bode well. However, this latest episode of censorship might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak.

Across China, members of the public have reportedly gathered to protest the draconian censorship regulation and there is already speculation about whether that might prove enough to make the fledgling leadership reassess such overt interference in what is written in future.

For now, it means that articles from the Southern Weekly would not likely be eligible for entry in our Amnesty media awards. The awards are a wonderful way to revel in the privilege of  living with a free press; free to examine, explore, expose – they opened for entry todaymore info here.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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