Leadership changes could aim to control news
Recent leadership changes in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong may be part of a crackdown on cutting-edge media organizations there that are beginning to break sensitive news stories without prior government approval, RFA's Mandarin service reports.
In changes announced in Guangdong on Jan. 8, former provincial propaganda chief Cai Dongshi was promoted to deputy provincial head of the Communist Party committee, a vice ministerial posting, while Zhu Xiaodan was named head of the province's propaganda work.
While one journalist said the promotions were probably routine, they came soon after the detention of Cheng Yizhong, editor-in-chief of the cutting-edge Southern City News newspaper, which was first to report China's first new case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) since July.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in China said Cheng was detained for eight hours Jan. 6 by officers from the state prosecution bureau, the People's Procuratorate. Staff at the newspaper contacted by RFA said Cheng was back at work. "Everything is proceeding normally at the paper today," said one staff member.
Another said it was "not convenient" to talk about sensitive subjects but confirmed the report of Cheng's detention. "He has come out now. He came out the same evening [as the day that he was detained]," the man said.
However, some observers said Cheng's detention suggested that the issue under investigation was economic, perhaps related to a corruption investigation.
His interrogation and an investigation into several of the paper's editors and journalists was strongly condemned by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. "There is no doubt that this corruption case is a pretext to try to silence this newspaper, known for its compromising revelations for local and national authorities," the group said.
In targeting Cheng and his staff, the authorities were sending a new and very clear message to all the media to discourage it from reporting freely on SARS, it said.
"It's very hard to say whether Cheng has committed economic crimes," said U.S.-based Chinese media commentator He Pin. "What we can say for certain is the Southern City News ...has been extremely courageous and pioneering in the way they report all kinds of social problems in China."
"Perhaps this has made certain people or organizations use economic accusations as a way of getting back at him," He said. "That's not out of the question." China confirmed its first SARS case in six months on Jan. 5, after the Southern City News reported the story Dec. 26.
"The development of Chinese media is a process marked by twists and turns. It was under total control of the authorities before. But now, to a large extent, it is subject to market control as well. Lack of good reports will affect sales volume, and low sales volume will then jeopardize a newspaper's existence. In this process, some media enterprises and people will encounter crackdown and punishment," he said.
But He thinks that despite crackdowns, the trend toward a freer and more open Chinese media will not change.