China paper says regulation must 'keep pace with times'

A Chinese newspaper at the centre of protests over censorship said Thursday that Communist Party regulation of the media must "keep pace with the times", in its first edition since the row began.

"It's fundamental that the party regulates the press, but its method of regulation needs to be advanced to keep pace with the times," the Southern Weekly said in an editorial, without referring directly to the controversy.

The row at the liberal paper, sparked by the replacement of an article urging greater rights protection with one praising the ruling party, has seen demonstrators mass outside its headquarters in the southern city of Guangzhou.

At their peak the protests, the first against press censorship in two decades, drew hundreds of people and the campaign built momentum on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, backed by the blogosphere and celebrities with millions of followers.

But the popular newspaper came out on Thursday as scheduled, after reports that staff and authorities had reached a deal that officials would no longer directly interfere in content before publication.

Only a few demonstrators gathered outside the newspaper's main office and reporters saw two -- one of them wheelchair-bound -- put into a vehicle and driven away, in an indication that authorities' tolerance for the rallies was waning.

There was speculation that as part of the agreement, Southern Weekly would not give its account of the controversy.

In the event the editorial on press freedom was printed in small text, as a commentary about another article on media management reprinted from the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece.

The Southern Weekly said that because of the rising popularity of the Internet, China needed an "updated method of managing public opinion". It called for "reasonable and constructive media" to be protected.

It used phrases commonly employed by the communist leadership and did not directly criticise the government's handling of the controversy.

"Chinese media can never be independent of the government... but the propaganda department should not censor in advance," said Min Jiang, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The deal "seemed to mark progress" in setting limits for government censorship, he added.

Reports said Hu Chunhua, the top communist official in Guangdong province where the newspaper is based and a rising star in the party, had stepped into the row to mediate.

Thursday's edition led with a two-page investigation into a fire at an orphanage in the central province of Henan, and devoted pages three and four to a review of the most influential legal cases of 2012.

"I don't think there will be any results from this," said a student buying a copy in Guangzhou, referring to the protests.

Southern Weekly's investigative reports have made it one of the country's biggest-selling papers with a keen following among urban intellectuals, but also left it subject to periodic purges.

All Chinese media organisations receive instructions from government propaganda departments, which suppress news seen by the party as "negative".

But the censorship of Southern Weekly was seen as unusually direct, although the original article soon emerged on Chinese social media.

Former journalists at the newspaper, as well as intellectuals and students published open letters calling for the resignation of Tuo Zhen, the propaganda official said to have been responsible.

The controversy appeared to spread to the capital, where the publisher of the Beijing News -- part-owned by the same group -- threatened to resign in the face of demands from propaganda authorities, according to accounts posted online by newspaper staff.

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