Police detain Chinese activists ahead of newspaper protest

GUANGZHOU (REUTERS) - Chinese authorities have detained some activists in the southern city of Guangzhou to try to derail a protest planned for Tuesday to commemorate a strike by reporters at an outspoken newspaper, several activists said.

The clampdown comes on the first anniversary of a rare newsroom strike at the Southern Weekly over censorship, which some experts say was the trigger for tighter controls on Chinese media in the past year under President Xi Jinping.

At least three activists contacted by Reuters said they would not join the protest after being warned by police.

"In recent days, those who were planning to mark the anniversary were either asked to meet (police), warned, put under house detention, forced to go on holiday...or were detained," said Mr Wu Wei, also known by his pen-name Ye Du, the Guangzhou-based deputy head of the Independent Chinese Pen Centre, which campaigns for freedom of expression in China.

Security was tight outside the gates of the Southern Media Group, which owns the Southern Weekly, with at least eight police vans and jeeps parked outside, and scores of uniformed and plainclothes police patrolling the area.

Police at the scene declined to comment.

Journalists at the weekly went on strike for several days last year after censors scrapped a New Year editorial calling for China to enshrine constitutional rights. The strike ended after local propaganda officials promised to take a lighter hand with censorship.

Prior to the run-in with the censors, the Southern Weekly had earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries in pursuing agenda-setting, hard-hitting news.

"For the government, these kinds of commemorative events and street activities are not tolerated within their social stability framework," said Mr Wu. "They have... pre-emptively clamped down on us."

On Saturday, police raided the home of activist Liang Songji, taking him into custody along with three others, according to two activists and online microblogging accounts.

Sui Muqing, a rights lawyer, said police had forced their way into Mr Liang's home.

A rights lawyer in Guangzhou, Liu Shihui, was also detained and his whereabouts remained unknown, said Human Rights in China, an advocacy group.

Prior to Saturday's detention, two other prominent rights activists in Guangzhou, Guo Feixiong and Liu Yuandong, were charged with assembling a crowd to "disrupt public order" during protests last year in support of the strike. The pair are expected to stand trial this month in Guangzhou.

In the protests last year outside the newspaper gates, some activists called for greater rights and democracy and lay wreaths of flowers in support of the journalists in a rare case of a politically charged street protest being tolerated by local authorities.

Since then, the government has tightened control over the media, punishing bloggers for spreading rumours on popular microblogging services, while media outlets nationwide have come under greater state scrutiny, according to many Chinese journalists.

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