Abrupt reshuffles at two outspoken Chinese newspapers have raised fears of growing pressure on the media in the run-up to Beijing's once-a-decade change of leadership this autumn.
Lu Fumin, the editor-in-chief of Guangzhou's New Express, has been moved sideways to its parent paper and national and international news coverage has been slashed, reportedly on the orders of officials.
The publisher of Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post, Lu Yan, has reportedly been transferred to another division of the group and the deputy editor-in-chief Sun Jian has been suspended. The newspaper refused to comment.
"I think these can probably be read as the surfacing of tensions playing out on a daily basis across the country's media. These are probably more egregious examples of the tightening of everyday control ahead of the 18th party congress [where the new leadership will be unveiled]," said David Bandurski of Hong Kong University's China Media Project.
He stressed that the moves should not be seen as part of a coordinated crackdown and could be related to local as much as national issues.
The party bosses of Guangdong and Shanghai are both tipped for promotion this autumn.
Prof Zhan Jiang, who teaches journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the South China Morning Post: "Any topics or reports that might draw excessive attention or cause trouble are not tolerated by the authorities. Stability is everything."
Li Datong, an independent commentator and former journalist, said he thought it was probably not a press freedom issue, adding: "It might be just be an internal issue among Chinese officials."
The editorial page of the New Express has been missing for two days. National and international sections did not appear at all on one day and were cut to two pages – a fraction of their usual length – the next, with the paper expanding its local news, entertainment and sports coverage.
A staff member said it was difficult to discuss the situation, but added: "We still have commentary but have changed the format and redesigned the paper."
The New Express has said Lu's removal was a normal transfer. Lu said via his microblog that he was moving to its parent paper "in line with work requirements" and had previously requested a shift.
Bandurski added that Chinese journalists generally found their way around periodic clampdowns, suggesting last year had seen something of a resurgence in investigative reporting.
"Never assume they are out for the count," he said.
© Guardian News and Media 2012
[image via Agence France-Presse]