Saturday, 5 January 2013

Battling the Media Censor

Public enemy Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen
Journalists in southern China are declaring war against censors, calling for the resignation of Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen.

In every New Year's day edition of Southern Weekly, a progressive paper that is highly respected, is an annual editorial address. This year it was supposed to be called "China's dream, a difficult dream". It was written by longtime columnist Dai Zhiyong, in which he said Chinese people desire freedom and rule of law, and that the country has a chance to make a fresh start 30 years after the "nightmare" of the Cultural Revolution.

Instead, Tuo replaced the text with a bland message entitled "Dreams are our promise to what we need to accomplish", filled with typical propaganda jargon and repeatedly referring to incoming President Xi Jinping as the key for China to realize its dreams. The word "dream" is used more often now after Xi's inaugural speech he talked about fulfilling "China's Dream".

Southern Weekly staff were outraged by Tuo's actions, calling it a "rape". Propaganda chiefs seem to have full power when it comes to control over the media; however, in southern China, most publications are left alone and so this sly move caused quite a stink. Apparently Tuo made the change after Dai's essay had already been signed off by editors.

The two articles are here side by side; As you can see, the one on the left is the original and twice as long as Tuo's. Editors must have been scrambling to fill the rest of the space. Pictures, anyone?

The editorial staff signed an open letter calling for an investigation into how the changes came about, and now former journalists and interns of the paper are also joining in on the bandwagon calling for Tuo to step down.

In a rare direct confrontation with the authorities, the 51 former staff called Tuo's interference as "ignorant and excessive". 

"In this era where we see growing open-mindedness, his actions are muddle-headed and careless," they said in the letter. "Tuo is unable to hold his current position, and should be forced to resign and make an open apology."

The letter goes on to say, "We oppose this brutal media management style. This style partly originates from personal interest, and partly from bureaucracy. But this is catastrophic to the media and the party."

In addition, Tuo's column contains a factual error, stating that flood control work by the ancient ruler Yu the Great was done 2,000 years ago instead of around 2000BC.

So far most of the other mainland news outlets have been silent on the matter, except for the Global Times, which said that while old media regulatory practices could not continue, it was unrealistic to have independent media on the mainland.

Meanwhile Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday that China upholds press freedom. "There is no censorship of media in China," she said.

Uh huh. So why does China have propaganda chiefs in every province and autonomous region as well as an overall propaganda czar, now Liu Yunshan?

It's very brave of the Southern Weekly journalists to fight back in such a public way. We wonder if heads may roll as punishment.

In any event it brings attention to censorship on the mainland, that it's very much alive and well in China. While the country is becoming more open bit by bit, it's its control over the media that it zealously guards over.

And we can also imagine that Tuo is all too keen to rise under Xi with his brown nosing column.

Didn't Tuo get Xi's memo about less lavish praise and more concrete results that benefit the people?

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