HONG KONG—Hundreds of journalists and retired Communist Party officials have signed an open letter calling on China's parliament to put an end to government censorship of the media. The letter also demands legal backing to constitutional freedoms of speech and association.
The move comes as the government implements a clampdown on news and debate about the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Penned by Li Rui, a former secretary of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and Party elder Hu Jiwei, along with 21 other authors, the letter was dated Oct. 1 and addressed to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature.
"We recommend that the NPC work immediately towards the drafting of a Press Law, and that all [national and local] restrictions on news and publishing be annulled," said the letter, translated into English by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
It said media organizations should be allowed to give up their role as Party mouthpieces and take on independent responsibility.
"We cannot again strengthen the censorship system in the name of 'strengthening the leadership of the Party,'" it said.
"Yes, he signed it," said Li Rui's wife, who answered the phone at the couple's Beijing home. But she said her husband was unavailable for interview because of a heart condition.
The letter based its argument on Clause 35 of China's constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, publication, association, and demonstration to all citizens.
In particular, it called for legal safeguards for journalists to protect them from attack or litigation in the course of their work, and for netizens to be allowed to express opinions freely online.
More signatures expected
The letter was signed by, among others, "Scars of the Past" magazine editor Tie Liu, who said its authors expect further signatures to be added.
"We addressed it directly to the NPC because we had 500 signatures," Tie said. "I think we could get as many as 10,000 people to sign."
Tie said the letter would be formally presented to the parliament ahead of its annual session in March.
"We are asking the authorities to make good on their promises, among other demands," he said, adding that around 70 percent of signatures were from people currently working in the media.
Fellow signatory Yu Haocheng said the time had now come to press for reforms to China's political system.
"This is part of the civil rights movement," Yu said. "Press freedom is a particularly hot topic at the moment."
Clampdown on Nobel mention
China has limited any mention of the award of the Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo in official media and online in recent days, and has detained dozens of Liu's supporters around the country to prevent them from attending celebratory events.
Officials have slammed Liu's award as an insult both to the Nobel Peace Prize and to the Chinese legal system, as Liu is currently serving an 11-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power."
"In suppressing the reaction to Liu's award, the authorities are hoping that there won't be a widespread reaction," said a former Chinese media worker surnamed He.
"They don't want there to be an uncontrollable reaction in the immediate aftermath of the award."
The Chinese authorities have recently forced a popular Internet discussion forum, or Bulletin Board System (BBS), to close through strong police pressure on the organizer.
Some journalists and activists using the microblogging service provided by top Chinese Web portal Sina.com said they had been prevented from sending any updates in the wake of Liu's Nobel award on Friday.
China's 420 million Internet users are subjected to a complex system of filters, blocks, and censorship by service providers, known collectively as the "Great Firewall," or GFW.
The authorities use a system of "sensitive words" to weed out content that the government deems subversive, including in recent days the name "Liu Xiaobo" and the words "2010 Nobel Peace Prize."
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.