China's Press Freedom Goes South

Will Southern Weekly's protest against censorship change the face of journalism in China?

On the night of Jan. 2, when the special New Year's edition of Southern Weekly had already been edited and typeset, the publishing plan for China's most liberal newspaper suddenly changed. In what many saw as a move overstepping his boundaries, Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief in Guangdong province, ordered the newspaper's editors to change the theme of the special edition and the content of its annual New Year's greeting letter. Instead of a provocative editorial calling for constitutional reform, Southern Weekly readers were greeted the next morning with Communist Party propaganda, laced with factual and editorial errors.

But the meddling by Communist Party officials backfired, igniting rare protests outside the newspaper's office and sending shockwaves all the way to Beijing. For two days, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Guangzhou, singing the Chinese national anthem and reciting Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, which protects the freedom of speech, press, and assembly, among other civil liberties, while several editors and reporters protested and walked out.

Unlike in Russia, there is no real democratic opposition in China. But the fight against censorship, which has flared up occasionally in the past two decades -- as journalists publish unapproved content and magazines and newspapers get shut down -- underscores the fragility of the tacit agreement the Chinese have with their government: economic success instead of political reform. With Xi Jinping less than two months into his new job as Communist Party chairman, there remains the expectation that he could be more open-minded than his predecessor Hu Jintao. Even though it's highly unlikely that he had any contact with Xi, Tuo's actions make it seem less likely that Xi will be a reformer.

On Tuesday evening, Jan. 6, the paper and the provincial government appeared to have reached a deal for a reduction in censorship. But by that time, the protests in Guangdong had galvanized a surprising level of support, drawing out reporters from other newspapers, cable television hosts, and even Weibo celebrities. Actress Yao Chen quoted Russian Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to her 32 million Weibo followers, writing, "One word of truth outweighs the whole world" (also the title of the 2006 New Year's letter from Southern Weekly.) Two of China's most famous bloggers, Li Chengpeng and Han Han, both posted messages in support of the newspaper. "We don't need tall buildings, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth," Li wrote on Jan. 7.

Why, then, did the muzzling of Southern Weekly -- not an unusual occurrence in authoritarian China -- ignite such a fury?

One reason is the heavy-handedness of Tuo's approach. Media censorship is commonplace in China, but is usually more subtle: for example, censors typically describe directives over the phone rather than by email (where it leaves a trail). And it is extremely rare for propaganda officials to directly change layout or content without going through the front-line editors and journalists.

Other reasons are specific to Southern Weekly, which holds a special place in the hearts and hopes of Chinese liberals. For 29 years, the paper has pushed the boundaries of what authorities would tolerate, delivering dependable, hard-hitting news to its 1.7 million weekly subscribers and training a generation of respected journalists. The paper's annual New Year's greeting letters are an important part of that tradition. Some of them have become widely cited classics, with lines like "give strength to the weak, rouse pessimists to march" (1999) and "hope is ourselves" (1997).

The original greeting letter for 2013 was entitled "China's Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism," but it failed to pass the censors. The editors then produced a second, toned-down version, entitled "Dreams Are Our Promise of What Should Be Done." The even more watered-down version that appeared on newsstands, "We Are Now Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before," offered only a recapitulation of a speech that Xi gave in November, in which he said the country is the closest it has ever been to "the great renewal of the Chinese nation." The message: political reform and introspection are unnecessary.

Angered editors and reporters vented their displeasure with government meddling on Sina Weibo beginning late on Jan. 2 and posted the three versions for readers to compare. The crackdown came quickly. Sina Weibo blocked the search term "Southern Weekly;" and comments about the incident were deleted nearly as fast as they were posted. Within 24 hours, the Weibo accounts of several editors and reporters were blocked, and at least five Southern Weekly reporters' accounts were deleted. (Sina Weibo later notified some journalists that their accounts will be reinstated in 30 days.)

On the afternoon of Jan. 3, Southern Weekly's official Weibo account issued an open letter titled "Explanation about the Publication Accident Regarding Our 2013 New Year's Message," which described the incident and demanded a thorough investigation. In his verified Sina Weibo account, Tan Weishan, deputy director of the video production department of Southern Metropolis Daily, a sister publication to Southern Weekly, wrote on Jan. 4 that "the reason we have been silent is because we live in a time when you can be fired as a result of someone in power phoning in to dismiss you ... a sword is hanging over the head of each journalist and you never know when it will fall."

The following day, the official Weibo account of Southern Weekly's finance department issued a second letter entitled "To Readers and All Who Care about Southern Weekly." It read: "Two days ago, we published an open letter calling for a thorough investigation of the incident. Two days have passed, the facts have not become clearer, but more and more people have been shut up.... Thank you! Because of you, we are still standing." The letter also stated claimed that at least 1,034 stories from Southern Weekly had been either rewritten or killed by censors in 2012.

What happened to Southern Weekly is nothing new in China, where press censorship has long cast a shadow over news organizations. On several occasions, censors have killed Southern Weekly's stories at the last minute, replacing copy with large ads on its front page, as they did when the paper was supposed to run an interview with President Barack Obama in 2009. But the furor over this New Year's debacle has been unusually potent, with journalists across China venting their frustration. The publisher of Beijing News, an influential paper in the capital, offered to resign after his paper was forced to publish an editorial criticizing Southern Weekly; the decision to publish reportedly caused some staffers to break down in tears.

Shen Changwen, former editor-in-chief of Reader, a Chinese literary magazine, once said that Chinese intellectuals are a community of kneeling rebels. The last time a newspaper rose in rebellion was when "Freezing Point," a weekly supplement to China Youth Daily, was shuttered for criticizing the Communist Party. After authorities closed down the supplement for two months, its deputy editor-in-chief apologized, saying: "I never want to be on my knees again; I want to rebel even though I still have to stoop."

Will Southern Weekly's journalists feel the same way?

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Turkey's Deal With the Devil

For decades, Turks have vilified Abdullah Ocalan as a terrorist. But he may be the only man who can bring an end to their country's bloody conflict with the Kurds.

On the morning of Jan. 3, Kurdish politicians Ayla Akat Ata and Ahmet Turk boarded a ferry bound for Imrali, a prison island on the Marmara Sea, about 40 miles south of Istanbul. Waiting for them inside the maximum-security jail was Turkey's public enemy No. 1: the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

The unprecedented meeting has revived hopes that a negotiated solution to Turkey's bloody, protracted conflict with the PKK may be within reach. Other signs also point to a concerted mediation effort: Ata and Turk's visit was preceded by contacts between the PKK leader and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's intelligence agency. Then on Jan. 8, the Turkish daily Radikal broke the news that Ocalan and Turkish officials had agreed to a road map that foresaw gradual PKK disarmament in exchange for allowing education in the Kurdish language, strengthened local administration in areas inhabited by Kurds, and a new, ethnically neutral definition of citizenship. According to the daily Yeni Safak, Ocalan also offered to call on the PKK's Syrian offshoot to suspend contacts with the regime in Damascus and join ranks with the anti-Assad rebels.

Turks and Kurds may be forgiven for not celebrating just yet. After 30 years and more than 40,000 casualties, the conflict has defied numerous attempts to silence the guns of war. A highly touted but badly mismanaged "Kurdish opening" launched by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in 2009 ended up in tatters after a nationalist backlash. In 2011, a series of secret talks with rebel leaders, including Ocalan, collapsed amid renewed PKK attacks. In the meantime, a wave of arrests of thousands of Kurdish politicians, academics, journalists, and activists -- moderates and radicals alike -- has convinced many Kurds that the government has no interest in a negotiated solution.

The decision to place Ocalan at the heart of the new talks reflects not only the failure of previous policies but also something that few politicians in Turkey have hitherto dared to acknowledge -- that more than a decade into his life sentence, the PKK's veteran leader continues to hold the key to peace. A few years ago, publicly engaging with Ocalan, a man many Turks view as the devil incarnate, would have exposed the government to charges of treason. Today, in one judges by the lack of public outcry, it is simply seen as the option that has the best chance of working. Tellingly, even the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which seldom misses a chance to bash Erdogan, has given his government the benefit of the doubt.

There may simply be no way of sidestepping Ocalan. Since 1984, when he and the PKK first took up arms against the Turkish state, Ocalan has consolidated his status as the Kurds' national icon. Just as shrewd and charismatic as he is ruthless and dictatorial, Apo, as he is known, has never lost his grip on the Kurdish movement. To this day, even from his remote island prison, he remains capable of firing up and cooling passions at will. Three years ago, when Ocalan complained through his lawyers that he was feeling cramped in his new prison cell, protests erupted in Kurdish cities across the country. In November 2012, Ocalan once again proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he urged several hundred Kurdish prisoners, some of them close to death after 68 days without food, to suspend their hunger strike. All complied in the blink of an eye.

The hunger strike intervention was a game-changer, says Cengiz Candar, a veteran journalist and the author of a 2011 report on the PKK. By showing Ocalan's leverage with militant Kurds, he says, "it gave an opportunity to those in government who sought a negotiated solution and who wanted Ocalan to play a central role in this framework."

A number of other factors may have played into the renewed push for peace. While recent military offensives against rebel bases in Turkey's southeast and in the mountains of northern Iraq may have weakened the PKK, they have failed to break the group's back. In the meantime, the fallout from neighboring Syria, where the PKK's local affiliate has emerged as the most powerful actor in areas populated by Kurds, has complicated things even further. Whether or not it has received direct aid from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as the Turks have alleged, the PKK has certainly been heartened by developments across the border, stepping up attacks against Turkish targets and, in the process, making 2012 the bloodiest year on record since Ocalan's capture.

Then there's the electoral calendar. Next year, Turks will head to the polls in local and presidential elections. As always, Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will vie for a chunk of the Kurdish vote. Its politicians -- including Erdogan, who is likely to make a bid for the presidency -- will want to point to some signs of progress toward meeting these voters' grievances. "The unresolved Kurdish issue, with the PKK in a position of escalating its violence, it's not a very conducive climate to have elections," says Candar.

Of course, there is no shortage of spoilers who could attempt to sabotage the talks before they get off the ground. One potential culprit is a group of hawks within the army, police, and judiciary that last flexed its muscles in February 2012, when a prosecutor subpoenaed Fidan on suspicion that the intelligence chief had exceeded his authority during the secret talks with the PKK. A hard-line faction within the PKK may also be keen to destroy any attempt at peace. On Jan. 7, a group of PKK members attacked a gendarmerie outpost in Turkey's southeast, killing a Turkish soldier. Two days later, in what appeared to be a direct provocation, unknown assailants shot dead PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz and two other women in Paris.

Candar is confident that PKK fighters will abide by whatever deal Ocalan hammers out with the government. "I don't buy the argument that there is Ocalan and there's also the PKK, that it is a two-headed organization," he said. "Whatever Ocalan decides to be done will be implemented by the organization."

Yildiray Ogur, the journalist who broke the news of Ata and Turk's visit to Imrali, agrees. "If Ocalan says that the military operations are ended and we've passed into the political arena, the PKK will accept this," he says. "Ocalan is a demigod for the PKK."

At some point, however, Ocalan's larger-than-life status among the Kurds may become part of the problem. Leading PKK members and Kurdish politicians have previously warned that no solution to the Kurdish issue would be viable unless it involves freedom for Ocalan or, at the very least, his transfer to house arrest. Whereas the conditions reportedly outlined in Ocalan's road map might appear palatable to Turkish public opinion, this one is certainly anything but. "House arrest," Erdogan said this week, "is out of the question."

Ocalan may have a narcissistic streak, says Ogur, but he is too smart a politician to make himself the subject of negotiations right from the get-go. If the issue of his future does ever come up, it will be at the end of the process -- after the PKK disbands. "Maybe after that the public view of Ocalan may change; maybe then the public will accept the move to house arrest," says Ogur.

"Yes," he says, "our prime minister said this is impossible. But in Turkey there isn't much that is impossible."