China’s boldest media: losing the battle?

Over the past few years there have been repeated signs that newspapers in the southern province of Guangdong, long known to be among the China’s most outspoken, have come under intensified pressure from the authorities. CMP reported last May that a reshuffle at the top of the Nanfang Daily Media Group, which operates such newspapers as Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekly, was a worrying sign of possibly eroding independence.

In a report late last week, iSun Affairs, an iPad magazine operated by Hong Kong’s Sun Media Group, took an in-depth look at recent changes at the Nanfang Daily Media Group.

The iSun Affairs story provides a number of crucial new details about what’s going on inside Guangdong’s leading family of newspapers, including the recent creation of an internal “examination office” (审读室) that now seems to exercise strong control over editorial content.

A partial translation of the iSun Affairs article follows, but we highly recommend that readers of Chinese read the full report:

Change in the South
iSun Affairs (阳光时务)
August 9, 2012

What has happened at the Nanfang Daily Media Group? Why is it that a string of editors and reporters have been dismissed? How are news controls on the Nanfang newspapers working? How is self-censorship operating within the Nanfang newspaper group?

By Hou Fangyu (侯方域)

In June and July this year, an internal examiner (内部审读员) at Southern Metropolis Daily suggested to superiors that Southern Metropolis Daily should avoid any further use of the cartoons of a certain well-known arts editor, the reason being that his illustrations would be politically risky for the newspaper. The examination office (审读室) is a newly created division within Southern Metropolis Daily.

After the July 21 floods in Beijing, an eight-page special feature was pulled from Southern Weekly. Internal examiners used a red pen to strike out stories about ordinary people affected [by the floods], and only reports on the actions of officials were left alone. The [censored] newspaper edition was shared widely on [the social media platform] Weibo, but was then deleted by Sina.

On the one-week anniversary of the loss of victims in the floods, Beijing’s The Beijing News ran 22 pages of commemorative editorials and special stories. This presented a stark contrast to the situation at the Nanfang Daily Media Group, where swathes of news about the floods were removed. Together, impotent editors and disappointed readers let out sighs.

Former Southern Weekly commentator Xiao Shu (笑蜀) called for an internal reckoning, and pointed his finger at Tuo Zhen (庹震), the head of the Propaganda Department of the Guangdong Committee of the CCP, calling for the tossing out of this extreme leftist ideological official. Xiao Shu was removed from Nanfang Daily Media Group back in March this year. Tuo Zhen landed in the province in May.

Tuo Zhen is an extremely conservative news official (新闻官员) who previously spent 20 years at the [official] Economic Daily. During his time as a deputy director at the official Xinhua News Agency, he implemented strict censorship standards, and once he left to take up his post in Guangdong, people at Xinhua breathed a sigh of relief.

It is said that when Tuo Zhen came south, he came with the task of cleaning up (整顿) the Nanfang Daily Media Group. Coincident with Tuo Zhen’s arrival in Guangdong was the appointment of Guangdong deputy propaganda minister Yang Jian (杨健) as concurrent Party secretary of the Nanfang Daily Group. He replaced Yang Xingfeng (杨兴锋), the Nanfang Daily Media Group director [with a long history with the group].

Bad news has continued to emerge from the Nanfang Daily Media Group. In 2011, well-known commentator Chang Ping (长平) was removed and the commentary desk of Southern Metropolis Daily was reshuffled, commentary writers and editors were removed. More recently, there has been the discharge of [well-known investigative reporter] Yu Chen (喻尘). And there has been the cutting down of the paper’s weekend editorial edition from eight pages to four.

So what exactly has happened at the Nanfang Daily Media Group? Why is it that a string of editors and reporters have been dismissed? How are news controls on the Nanfang newspapers working? And more importantly, how is self-censorship operating within the Nanfang newspaper group?

The Mutation of Mother Paper and Child Paper

The Nanfang Daily Media Group has two levels, the [umbrella] group (Note: this is the Nanfang Daily Media Group, 南方报业传媒集团) and a network of “child papers” [or spin-offs], eleven newspapers including Nanfang Daily, Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily and China Business Herald (21世纪经济报道). Before the [former] director, Fan Yijin (范以锦), retired in 2006, the child papers managed all along to turn back interference by the group, preserving quite well the right for the papers to develop independently. But this all started to change after Yang Xingfeng took over as director.

While Nanfang Daily is the mother paper [in the group], income comes primarily from Southern Metropolis Daily/ Southern Weekly, China Business Herald and other child papers. But no matter how much the chief editors of these newspapers managed to distinguish themselves through their work, it was nearly impossible for them to advance to the group’s governing committee (集团社委), the Nanfang Newspaper Managing Committee (南方报社管理委员会), which is a provincial-level Party organ.

Before 2008, there were cases where deputy chief editors from the group concurrently held positions of responsibility at child papers, but there was relative respect for the independent operation of the newspapers, and there was in fact little interference. Beginning from the time when Yang Xingfeng took over as director of the group, visits to the child papers by the group’s governing committee meant more intense involvement.

In the clearest examples, after committee member Cao Ke (曹轲) was sent down to Southern Metropolis Daily, and committee members Wang Genghui (王更辉) and Huang Can (黄灿) were sent down to take charge at Southern Weekly, the relative calm that had prevailed at the child papers was shattered. The control was lost over editorial direction and over hiring, setting off internal conflict within the child paper network. Over three years of conflict and mediation from 2008 to 2011, the independent rights of the child papers were subdued by the group. The managing committee were no longer the blameless “representatives of the group” (集团代理人). They became instead those who exercised real control over the papers, and a power structure was in place.

The change to the power dynamics between mother papers and child papers meant, for the child papers themselves, that they could no longer act according to their own values. And they could no longer protect those editors and reporters who ran afoul of [official] controls. As far as the propaganda department was concerned, the shift in the power dynamic meant it was now much easier to control the media.

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