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China censorship prompts rally and online protest

BEIJING -- Free-speech protesters in masks squared off against flag-waving communist loyalists in Guangzhou yesterday as a dispute over censorship at a newspaper spilled into the broader population, with authorities shutting the microblog accounts of supporters of the paper.

What started out as a conflict between a top censor and journalists at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly over a New Year's editorial has rapidly become a focal point driving public calls for the authoritarian Communist Party government to loosen its grip on information. The dispute centers on how the editorial, originally calling for political reform, was transformed into a tribute praising the Communist Party.

Scholars have signed open letters calling for the censor's dismissal, celebrities and others are speaking out for the paper on microblogs, drawing a crackdown by authorities. Hundreds of people gathered for a second day outside the weekly's office, bearing flowers and signs in support.

The paper's editorial committee was in negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office, according to a Southern Weekly editor.

Propaganda officials want the newspaper to publish on Thursday as normal. But editors are negotiating over whether to do so, and under what terms, such as could they include a letter to readers explaining the incident, the editor said.

The committee is also pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper's content before publication, the editor said. The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing, and should refrain from taking issue with content until after publication, the editor said.

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