A top academic at China's prestigious Beijing University has launched a blistering attack on the Communist Party's propaganda officials, saying they are effectively lending a helping hand to evildoers and corrupt officials by muzzling the country's news organizations, RFA's Mandarin service reports.
Jiao Guobiao, a deputy professor at the University's Center for Media and Communications Studies, posted an article on the Internet titled "Crusade against the Propaganda Department," attacking propaganda officials for "suppressing everything in the name of stability" and for muzzling news reporting at every turn.
The government's propaganda system is stifling the media, taking away the right of the people to know what is going on, Jiao said.
The article was carried on a number of Chinese-language Web sites, though many appeared to be run by overseas groups. In it, Jiao said the Propaganda Department was "a stumbling block to the civilized development of Chinese society."
He said its actions had provided a helpful shelter for evil forces and corrupt officialdom. The department had become a bastion for the forces of ignorance and backwardness, Jiao said.
"Everyone knows that China has too little press freedom, not too much," Jiao said. "The question is, who is short-changing us and holding us back even from the meager amount that we are allowed? The Propaganda Department."
Jiao's article came shortly after the jailing of several editors, managers, and other editorial staff at the cutting-edge Southern Metropolis News , a daily newspaper based in Guangzhou.
Former general manager and assistant editor Yu Huafeng and former editor-in-chief Li Minying were sentenced to 12 and 11 years' imprisonment for corruption respectively on March 19.
Current editor-in-chief Cheng Yizhong also was recently arrested and charged with embezzling 100,000 Renminbi and other economic irregularities.
"They are very hard workers," one member of staff at the newspaper told RFA's Mandarin service in a recent interview. "They are very fair also. Especially Yu Huafeng, he is one of the most hard-working in the office. He graduated from the People's University with high honors. His professionalism is excellent," the staff member said.
"He is not a greedy person. He always helps out co-workers who are tight on money out of this own pocket. A person like him cannot be bought for a mere 100,000 yuan," Yu's colleague said.
Ever since the newspaper had started running daily news, its popularity has skyrocketed on the back of ground-breaking reporting, including the beating death of a university graduate Sun Zhigang by police in Guangzhou.
Many observers agree with staff members that the paper is being targeted for its aggressive reporting style using trumped-up corruption charges.
"The plan of the officials is to break those two people down and incriminate more people at the Southern Metropolis News ," the staff member said. "This is a move on the part of the vice-secretary of the Guangzhou municipal government, Zhang Guifang, and the head of the police department, Su Shuisheng, to retaliate and persecute the newspaper, because we interfered with their personal agenda when we exposed the truth. They will never run out of excuses to incriminate us."
"The newspaper will probably have to change its reporting style or it may possibly be destroyed," the employee told RFA.
The Southern Metropolis News was set up as a commercial newspaper as part of a development plan for China's media, the employee said, so the corruption convictions could send a wrong message to Beijing.
"These particular newspapers are more outspoken and more willing to report controversies," Fang Jue, visiting scholar at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for East Asia Research, told RFA. "Hence, they are viewed as troublemakers among government officials and state departments. And they look for many excuses to persecute them."
"This clearly indicates freedom of the press can only prevail if it has political and legal protections," Fang said. "The government should not be allowed to use excuses to persecute reporters and media organizations exercising the freedom of the press."
Yu and Li's lawyers are pursuing appeals and objections to their sentences. Chinese leaders have called on the media to help expose corruption in Party and government officials, and to work harder to reflect the reality of the lives of ordinary people.
But reporters are caught between top-down directives from Party propaganda bureaux and the vested interests of local corrupt officials and criminal organizations.