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Chinese journalists on strike, hundreds gather in support

After a New Years editorial was modified by the government, journalists at the Southern Weekly newspaper have begun a strike, a rare move against a traditionally censor-happy government.
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A controversy over the censorship of a newspaper editorial in China's Southern Weekly newspaper has bloggers and government propagandists alike sounding off over media freedom in China. (Flickr user ArtsieAspie/Courtesy)

Journalists at the Southern Weekly, a Chinese newspaper from the Guangdong Province that has been described in the western press as "liberal" and "edgy", have staged a strike after an editorial was modified by government censors so as to praise the Communist party system. 

The reporters claim that more than 1,000 articles have been edited or censored by the government. 

It's unclear how many reporters and staff of the newspaper are actually striking, but the move has caught the country's attention, and hundreds stood in the streets in front of the newspaper's offices on Monday, chanting and holding signs and flowers. According to the New York Times, one banner read, “Get rid of censorship. The Chinese people want freedom.”

The internet, too, has jumped into the fray, and microbloggers across the country, including prominent celebrities and business people, are accusing the government of overstepping.

Students from Nanjing Normal University have done a photo project showing their support, and an online petition in support of the paper has hundreds of signatures, according to the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.

The editorial in question was a New Year's article calling for democracy titled, "China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism,” but it was so heavily edited that the end result was a pro-Communist line, the exact opposite of what the paper's editors seem to have intended. 

Newspaper staff and online commentators have called for the removal of the Guangdong provincial propaganda minister, Tuo Zhen, the latest in an escalation between the government and the people over free speech rights.

More from GlobalPost: Journalists protest against censorship in Guangdong province

On Saturday, the paper posted an open letter online calling for an independent investigation into the censorship.

"Two days after we demanded a formal investigation, the truth about what happened has not been clarified, but more and more people demanding the truth have been silenced," the online letter said, according to the South China Morning Post. "The incident [involving the New Year edition] was like the fuse on a detonator."

BBC's Beijing correspondent said Southern Weekly is the country's "most respected" paper and is "known for its hard-hitting investigations and for testing the limits of freedom of speech," a rarity in China, where the press and the internet are heavily censored and papers, as well as microblogging accounts and blogs, are often shut down at the slightest hint of criticism of the government. 

The new Chinese president Xi Jinping, who was elected the party's leader in November, faces a country that's increasingly difficult to silence, as crafty bloggers and netizens continue to find creative ways around firewalls and more and more dissent bubbles to the surface over anti-democratic government actions. 

Reuters reported the government shut down the website of a leading pro-reform magazine on Friday for calling for political reform. 

Newspapers and party propaganda machines throughout the country have taken sides in the fight over Southern Weekly, which seems to have become a symbol for the larger media censorship problem, especially after reports surfaced that the provincial censors had ordered all regional newspapers to observe a gag order and not report on the Southern Weekly controversy. 

The People's Daily, the party's official propaganda outlet, released a soothing editorial that said top brass should “follow the rhythm of the times” and move toward a “pragmatic and open-minded image," which the New York Times reports some people have interpreted as quiet steps toward adopting a more open attitude toward free media.

However, Global Times, a populist newspaper, said Southern Weekend was merely a newspaper and should not challenge the system.

“Even in the West, mainstream media would not choose to openly pick a fight with the government,” the editorial reportedly said, according to the Times. 

The Shaanxi-based China Business News also published a commentary, says the South China Morning Post, "calling the row a test of the leadership's ability to govern and heed public concerns."

"The conflict between public opinions and authorities in Guangdong also underlines a pressing issue of greater importance: it is high time to review and reform our policies regarding media control," said yesterday's editorial.

For liveblogging and updates from the journalists at Southern Weekly, check out the South China Morning Post's bloggers. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/rights/chinese-journalists-strike-demonstrators-gather-support