In the past few months, internet-censorship stories have become so rampant as to almost seem normal; a rumor crackdown here, a Weibo celebrity imprisoned there, and oh hey, someone is reading through your WeChat messages. While the Party has ramped-up its digital censorship/punishment apparatus over the past few months, it’s been (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) skimping out on real-paper print news.
The Guangdong New Express has taken this blind-spot and run with it, publishing a front-page article with “RELEASE HIM” scrawled across the top in almost satirically-huge print; an appeal to Changsha police to release an imprisoned journalist. The journalist, Chen Yongzhou’s, story is an incredibly interesting one, and a great run-down can be found on Danwei.com. The details of his individual case are complex and convoluted, but suffice to say, the New Express‘s headline is a bold move: it openly, loudly, alarms the public that a journalist has been imprisoned, likely unlawfully, by local police.
This kind of announcement could easily land one in prison if it were merely re-tweeted a handful of times, let alone published in ink by a state-monitored major newspaper. South China Morning Post declared the headline to be “an unprecedented call for press freedom by a major Chinese media outlet.”
While the New Express story is unique for its blatant and provocative (i.e. ballsy and awesome) article this week, it is part of a larger trend in which print outlets, surprisingly, have managed to slip the filter on China’s censors. I say ‘surprisingly’ because the New Express (along with all major Chinese print news outlets) know what the censorship rules are, and oftentimes have in-house monitors who can kill a story exactly like the “RELEASE HIM” headline that came out today (see this summer’s Southern Weekly censorship scandal). Along with Southern Weekly and the New Express, the Beijing News has also been flexing its independent-journalism muscle, and has posted a statement of support in favor of the New Express.
This show of print-freedom is remarkable because it coincides with one of China’s darkest eras of internet freedom; major print news outlets are flaunting independence while, simultaneously, new laws are sending 16-year-olds to jail for re-tweeting stories online and Weibo celebrities are forced into bizarre public self-criticism sessions. China’s censors seem to have put the bulk of their efforts onto controlling the nation’s population itself (e.g. conversations online, Weibo posts, etc.) instead of chasing after its media producers (these lovely newspapers).
This has created a bizarre world in which papers can print stories like “RELEASE HIM,” but those who want to talk about the same criminal case online may be swiftly hit by the censor’s blow. Whether or not the New Express is forced to somehow redact its article (and/or fire a handful of staff) remains to be seen, but for now, it looks like the world of print is pummeling its digital alternative when it comes to freedom of expression.