China's state-controlled media has been effectively barred from covering forthcoming polls in the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan, journalists said via anonymous microblog posts this week.
Residents of Wukan voted for new election officials last week, in the wake of several weeks of protests last year sparked by anger over official corruption and the sale of local farmland.
Violent protests by the Wukan villagers against unscrupulous land grabs and rigged elections sparked rare concessions following an investigation by the provincial government of Guangdong, which concluded that most of the villagers' demands and complaints were fair.
However, Chinese journalists have said via popular microblogging services that they have been turned back by officials after traveling to Wukan to cover the elections, which follow the appointment of key protest leader Lin Zuluan as village Communist Party secretary.
A user identifying themselves as a Chinese journalist posted on the Sina microblogging service under the account name @tanweishan, saying that the Wukan polls would only be covered by a handful of Chinese journalists.
Journalists trying to cover the polls had been subjected to police surveillance and monitoring of their phone calls, the user said.
A second microblogger, also identifying themselves as a journalist, said that the authorities seemed to be in possession of confidential information about which reporters planned to travel to Wukan.
Among those thrown out of Wukan was a journalist working for the Beijing-based Economic Observer, the Sina Weibo user, identified as @wangkaitongxue, said.
As Wukan villagers voted on Feb. 1 for the election committee, many journalists were kept away from the proceedings, according to resident Zhang Jiancheng.
"On polling day, they didn't set up a media reception station," Zhang said. "Even those Chinese journalists who had registered were forbidden from going to the polling station."
Meanwhile, Xue Jinwan, the daughter of Xue Jinbo, whose controversial death in police custody sparked one of the largest protest rallies in the standoff, said she had been left in relative peace in recent days.
"There have hardly been any reporters here in the past few days," she said. "They have all disappeared."
A Shanghai-based journalist surnamed Cao said the government was keeping a tight rein on the media ahead of a crucial leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year, in spite of an apparently enlightened response to the Wukan stand-off by provincial officials.
"If they are controlling it, it comes against the background of the succession and the 18th Party Congress," Cao said. "They must control the media so as to preserve the power and authority of Party leaders."
Hangzhou-based veteran journalist and blogger Zan Aizong said the media controls were probably the result of caution on the part of leadership hopeful and current Guangdong Party secretary Wang Yang.
"Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang probably wants to get into the [Politburo] standing committee at the 18th Party Congress, so he's afraid of anything disruptive," Zan said.
"If he were to lose control of the situation, he would never get elected to the standing committee, and all his good work would come to nothing."
The nine-member standing committee is effectively the highest decision-making body in Chinese politics, and includes the president, premier, vice-president and vice-premiers.
Cao said officials in any province would take all necessary steps to ensure that journalists didn't report negative news about their home patch.
"Wherever power is involved, the government really acts decisively," he said. "If journalists want to come to Guangdong and report the bad stuff, then Guangdong will crack down on them."
"Wukan is a sensitive issue and a negative news story for Guangdong."
Chinese premier Wen Jiabao called for grassroots village democracy to be strengthened on a trip to Guangdong province last week, but he conspicuously failed to mention Wukan by name, an omission which Cao said provincial officials would be quick to pick up.
"It was decided that Wukan could be a good model worth publicizing for the so-called reformist faction," Cao said. "But because it's supposed to be a positive model, they can't afford to publicize it."
"If this attempt at liberalization is reported openly, it will be read as a sort of rebellion by Guangdong against the system, so that's why there is this contradiction," he said.
Zan said China's Central Propaganda Department had recently forbidden Chinese journalists from reporting government-linked stories in other localities than their own.
"Most local news outlets aren't truthful, but it's hard to completely ban negative news about another province, for example, Guangdong," he said. "They are interfering with newsgathering activities by reporters in order to preserve social stability."
China came 174th on the Global Press Freedom index in 2011, compared with 171st in 2010 and 168th in 2009, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
Voting in the Wukan village committee elections of China's ruling Communist Party will take place on March 1.
Reported by Jiang Pei for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.