Veteran Chinese columnist dismissed for critical articles

New York, January 28, 2011–The Chinese government is stepping up pressure on media outlets in order to silence outspoken journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The Guangzhou-based Southern Media Group forced veteran columnist and editor Zhang Ping to resign Thursday following pressure from information authorities due to his candid commentaries, according to international news reports. 

Zhang, who has written for the Group on sensitive issues like political reform, told the London-based Guardian newspaper on Thursday that he had “been resigned.” The publisher denied applying pressure and said his contract had not been renewed, according to The New York Times. Zhang had been under pressure for some time. Propaganda department orders forbade the group, which publishes the Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend magazine, from carrying Zhang’s writing in August 2010, according to Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. “It is not just because of one particular article,” Zhang told the Guardian. 

The journalist, who writes under the name Chang Ping, said the timing of the decision reflected strengthening media control since 2010’s honoring of writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion. “Censorship has tightened since the Nobel Peace Prize,” Zhang told the Times.

“Zhang Ping is a courageous independent voice in Chinese journalism, and we are deeply concerned that authorities have chosen to punish him,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “China must accept that allowing journalists like Zhang to work freely will strengthen, not undermine, the country’s progress.”

Controls on the professional media have become less visible in the past decade, CPJ research shows. Authorities have imprisoned professional journalists breaking propaganda regulations in the past, but most journalists now in prison in China are freelancers reporting online. While some in the country’s mainstream media are speaking out against attacks and harassment, including arrests, Zhang’s treatment underscores that the Chinese Communist Party is not relaxing its efforts to restrict information.

Media groups often suspend, transfer or fine journalists that attract propaganda department scrutiny, according to CPJ research. Southern Metropolis Daily’s editor, Li Wenkai, was also transferred this week, according to the China Media Project.

Zhang has been shuffled from post to post during his career with the Southern Daily Group. His tenure as deputy editor of Southern Weekly was cut short after he challenged Chinese nationalism over Tibet following ethnic conflict in the region in 2008. He and several colleagues were also demoted for reporting on criminal groups in 2001.

The cause for transfers is often unclear to outsiders, since internal departmental conflicts may also play a role, and journalists are pressured to comply. “Many times I have been told not to write and that if I agreed I would be able to get more benefits,” Zhang said, according to the Guardian