Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 | 12:10 a.m.
BEIJING — A southern Chinese news company at the center of free speech protests earlier this year has come under fire for turning against demonstrators who sought to defend it in a dispute with censors.
The Southern Weekly's editorial staff staged a rare but short-lived revolt against censorship in January that attracted dozens of protesters. Its supporters turned up at the gates of the paper's owner, the Southern Media Group in Guangzhou, to lay flowers, holding signs and shouting slogans in support of free speech and democracy.
But it has now been revealed that the Southern Media Group declared in a statement to the police that the protests interfered with the operations of the news company, effectively providing evidence likely to be used against the activists including prominent democracy worker Guo Feixiong.
A leaked copy of the declaration circulated online over the weekend. Guo's lawyer Zhang Xuezhong confirmed that the leaked statement matched a copy he had seen at the Guangzhou prosecutors' office.
The dispute was quietly resolved after editorial staff and censors reached a compromise. But nearly a year later, at least three of the protesters, including Guo, are now likely to face public disturbance charges.
The weeklong fracas at the Southern Weekly in January had evolved from a row over censorship at one newspaper to a call for free speech and political reform across China, handing an unexpected test to the Communist Party leadership headed by Xi Jinping just two months after he was installed.
Among those criticizing the company are some of its current and former staff, who have posted messages on their microblog accounts or other social media sites. Others who criticized the media group included liberal intellectuals and activists. Many of the supporting messages were quickly removed by censors.
"Citizens should have the right to assembly and free speech, and these are also rights that journalists pursue and defend," wrote Zhang Zhe, a reporter who was working at Southern Weekly at the time but has since left. Zhang confirmed when reached by phone that he had written the message and posted it online.
Zhang wrote that "there was no violent disruption whatsoever at the time" and that he condemned the media group's statement against the protesters.
Calls to the newspaper and Southern Media Group were either unanswered or not returned.
The Southern Weekly case is part of a wide-ranging crackdown on peaceful street protests in 2013 that has underscored the anxiety with which the party's leadership regards political activism outside its control.
Even though the Southern Weekly is known for its edgy reporting, its parent company remains answerable to the Communist Party, just like most domestic media outlets.
"It's likely that someone from the media group wanted to use the opportunity to convey a message from above," said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Supporters of Guo who were also at the January protest said the accusations of public disturbance against him and other demonstrators are trumped up in a bid to convict them as a warning to others.
Wang Aizhong, a Guangzhou-based activist, said protesters stayed off the main road and were mindful to avoid blocking traffic. He said activists would continue advocating for Guo and the others now being prosecuted for the protests. "Because he's being politically oppressed, we must speak out for him," Wang said.