News Media in Southern China Fire One Journalist, Place Another on Leave

February 16, 2011

In January 2011, media outside of mainland China reported that two prominent journalists at news media in southern China were fired or placed on leave, highlighting the opaque environment in which such decisions are made and the potential risks Chinese journalists face when reporting on politically sensitive topics.

Southern Daily Group Fires Chang Ping

A prominent journalist whose columns on politically sensitive topics appeared in popular newspapers based in southern China said he was fired on January 27, 2011, according to a January 27 New York Times (NYT) article. The journalist, Chang Ping, said authorities pressured his superiors at the Southern Daily Group to dismiss him. The group publishes several newspapers, among them Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan Daily, which are known for their investigative reporting and relative independence within the confines of overarching state control. NYT said that Chang "has a reputation for writing about politically sensitive topics, including democracy, media censorship, the failures of government policy and Tibet." A January 28 Associated Press (AP) article (via Businessweek) said that Chang angered authorities in 2008 with an editorial on the Tibetan protests and riots in which he called for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama and freer access for foreign journalists. Both Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan Daily ceased publishing Chang's editorials six months prior to his firing, AP reported. When contacted by NYT and AP about the firing, representatives of the news group said that Chang's contract had expired and that the group believed "some of his work was inappropriate."

Time Weekly Places Editor on Leave

Also in January, media outside of mainland China reported that another newspaper in southern China, Time Weekly, placed one of its editors, Peng Xiaoyun, on involuntary leave after the paper ran a story mentioning prominent activists and several signers of Charter 08, according to a January 10 Radio Free Asia (RFA) article (in Chinese). The paper published the story, titled the "100 Most Influential People of Our Time," in mid-December 2010. Among those who made the list was Zhao Lianhai, the prominent advocate for children poisoned by tainted milk who was jailed and then released on medical parole. RFA reported that after the Time Weekly story's publication, copies were recalled and Peng and another editor were required to write self-criticisms. An unnamed reporter told the South China Morning Post (January 12, subscription required) that Time Weekly ordered Peng to resign before the Lunar New Year, but backtracked after Chinese Internet users criticized the move.

The precise role, if any, that government or Communist Party officials played in the decision is unclear. The newspaper appeared concerned about the political sensitivity of the story prior to its publication, with SCMP reporting that the newspaper removed the artist Ai Weiwei from the list. Peng refused to comment on the reason for her involuntary leave. In an interview with RFA, Chang Ping said Peng's case could be one of self-censorship, but that the lack of transparency made it difficult to know where the order came from.

The Communist Party limits the Chinese media's coverage of topics the Party deems politically sensitive. Journalists who test these limits risk losing their jobs. For example, in March 2010, Zhang Hong, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Economic Observer, was fired after he co-authored an editorial calling for reform of the hukou system. Self-censorship is also a major problem, as a veteran Chinese journalist recently noted in a speech in Hong Kong in January, according to a January 21 China Media Project article. On the other hand, Chinese journalists also recently have shown growing assertiveness in defending their rights, as the CECC reported in a November 2010 analysis. And in the case of both Chang Ping and Peng Xiaoyun, journalists and other citizens took to the Internet to express support for the journalists, according to a January 10 Deutsche Welle article (in Chinese) and a February 7 RFA article. According to RFA, authorities shut down Chang Ping's blog after several thousand Chinese Internet users signed a petition opposing his dismissal.

For more information on freedom of the press in China, see Section II-Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.