China media group slammed for betraying protesters

The group owns a weekly newspaper whose editorial staff staged a rare yet brief revolt against censorship earlier in January

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A southern Chinese news company at the center of free speech protests early in 2013 has come under fire for turning against demonstrators who sought to defend it in a dispute with censors.

The Southern Media Group is the Guangzhou-based owner of a weekly newspaper whose editorial staff staged a rare but short-lived revolt against censorship in January that attracted dozens of protesters.

Supporters of the Southern Weekly newspaper turned up at the gates of the news group’s offices, laying flowers, holding signs and shouting slogans in support of free speech and democracy.

The week long fracas at the Southern Weekly evolved quickly from a row over censorship at one newspaper to a call for free speech and political reform across China, handing an unexpected test to the Communist Party leadership headed by Xi Jinping just two months after he was installed.

The dispute was quietly resolved after editorial staff and censors reached a compromise. But nearly a year later, at least three of the protesters, including the prominent democracy activist Guo Feixiong, are now likely to face public disturbance charges.

The media group is being criticized for declaring in a statement to police that the protests interfered with the operations of the news company, effectively providing evidence likely to be used against the activists.

A leaked copy of the declaration circulated online over the weekend. Guo’s lawyer Zhang Xuezhong confirmed that the leaked statement matched a copy he had seen at the Guangzhou prosecutors’ office.

Among those criticizing the company are some of its current and former staff, who have posted messages on their microblog accounts or other social media sites. Others who criticized the media group included liberal intellectuals and activists. Many of the supporting messages were quickly removed by censors.

“Citizens should have the right to assembly and free speech, and these are also rights that journalists pursue and defend,” wrote Zhang Zhe, a reporter who was working at Southern Weekly at the time but has since left. Zhang confirmed when reached by phone that he had written the message and posted it online.

Zhang wrote that “there was no violent disruption whatsoever at the time” and that he condemned the media group's statement against the protesters.

Su Shaoxin, an editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily’s op-ed section, also confirmed by phone that he wrote a message on his microblog declaring that operations at his newspaper carried on as usual during the protests. He declined to comment further.

Calls to the newspaper and Southern Media Group were either unanswered or not returned. The Communist Party secretary of Southern Media Group is a former deputy director of the provincial party propaganda department, an arrangement that appears to enable the party to exert influence over the company.

“It’s likely that someone from the media group wanted to use the opportunity to convey a message from above,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The Southern Weekly case is part of a wide-ranging crackdown on peaceful street protests in 2013 that has underscored the anxiety with which the party’s leadership regards political activism outside its control.

Supporters of Guo who were also at the January protest said the accusations of public disturbance against him and other demonstrators are trumped up in a bid to convict them as a warning to others.

Wang Aizhong, a Guangzhou-based activist, said protesters stayed off the main road and were mindful to avoid blocking traffic. He said activists would continue advocating for Guo and the others now being prosecuted for the protests. “Because he’s being politically oppressed, we must speak out for him,” Wang said.

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