Chinese authorities have charged an activist who spoke out against censorship in high-profile protests outside the Southern Weekend newspaper group's offices at the beginning of this year with public order offenses, lawyers and activists said on Tuesday.
In recent days, prosecutors in the southern province of Guangdong have charged prominent rights lawyer and activist Yang Maodong, better known as Guo Feixiong, with "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order," his lawyer said.
Guo was involved in a high-profile public protest by journalists at the Southern Weekend newspaper in January over censorship and activities by the New Citizens' Movement against official corruption.
In a rare public show of support for press freedom, protesters had gathered outside the gates of the Southern Media Group in Guangzhou, laying floral wreaths, waving placards, and shouting slogans in support of free speech.
Since then the media group—which is one of the most cutting-edge newspapers in China, despite being under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party—has come under fire from activists for providing evidence to the police that the protests were interfering with their operations.
Guo's lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, who posted a leaked copy of the statement, has confirmed it matched a copy he had seen at the Guangzhou prosecutors’ office, indicating it had been used to bolster the case against Guo for disrupting public order.
'Charge of choice'
Rights lawyer Sui Muqing, who has defended Guo in other cases, said Guo was being targeted for his activism.
"It's very clear that they are selectively implementing the law here," Sui said in an interview on Tuesday.
"The whole concept of victimhood in the charge of disrupting public order is extremely flexible."
He said it was very common for the government to use such charges against people who spoke out against it.
"Nowadays, most dissidents and rights activists are charged with such crimes," Sui said. "It is the charge of choice for cracking down on dissent."
Shock and anger
Ye Du, Guangzhou-based member of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN, said he and fellow writers had been shocked and angered by the news of Guo's charges.
"When I saw this I was shocked, but not very surprised," Ye said.
"This document shows clearly that it was written on the orders of the authorities."
"I'm guessing that it was much easier for them to charge [Guo] with disrupting public order if the Southern Media Group gave evidence as a victim," he said.
"That's why so many people are angry, and some people are saying online that they will boycott Southern Weekend."
Repeated calls to the Southern Weekend's news hotline went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Top investigative journalist Pang Jiaoming was sacked from his job at the China Economic Times newspaper last month after his bosses received a directive from the powerful propaganda ministry in Beijing.
Pang has also been barred from working on other publications, he told RFA.
"I spent two years at the China Economic Times, and three years at the Southern Metropolis Daily, and three years at Caixin Media," Pang said.
"Every time I left [a job] it was due to some kind of political pressure," he said.
"I have left a lot of places, so I have done this before; I will take some time to read and write, and contemplate for the time being," he said.
Pang's former colleague at the China Economic Times, Han Yuting, wrote on social media that Pang's dismissal was typical of the treatment meted out to journalists who try to expose stories the government would rather see covered up.
"It is the fate of investigative journalists to get fired," Han wrote.
'Controlled by the party'
A Guangdong-based online writer surnamed Liu said Southern Weekend, for all its reputation as a newspaper that pushes boundaries, is still controlled by the party.
"This proves that even the Southern Media Group has to operate within the system," Liu said. "They can't escape the framework they're in."
He said the media group's actions are unlikely to represent the opinions of its editorial staff.
"Management and editorial are two separate things," Liu said. "The propaganda ministry is clearly encamped among its management."
The Central Committee of the Communist Party recently issued an "opinion" setting out guidelines for "propagating core socialist values" among China's media organizations, to prevent "incorrect points of view" from making an appearance, official media reported.
The "opinion" document has been sent out to media organizations across China in recent days, with orders for its "complete and actual" implementation, the official Xinhua news agency said.
China's media should play a key role in "strengthening propaganda and educating people regarding core socialist values," the document said.
Chinese journalists must now also pass a political test showing an in-depth understanding of Marxist ideology and more recent political jargon brought in by President Xi Jinping.
Reported by Shi Shan and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.