Outspoken Chinese columnist 'forced to quit'

BEIJING, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - A prominent Chinese columnist known for questioning the government line said Friday he was forced out of one of China's most outspoken media groups as authorities tighten controls on expression.

Chang Ping said in an angry posting on his microblog that he was forced to resign from the Southern Media Group after refusing to tone down his writing.

"I cannot commit to that, so I have been forced to resign," he said, adding "I despise and protest" the throttling of free expression.

China's Communist Party government has tightened its grip on dissidents and the media since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo in October.

Dissidents have been placed under house arrest or other restrictions or ordered to keep quiet, rights groups say, following the Nobel announcement, which prompted a deeply embarrassed Beijing to lash out over the prize.

Human rights websites have also published government directives issued earlier this month ordering the nation's media to downplay controversial issues in 2011 and maintain a pro-government tone in their reporting.

Chang was a columnist and former top editor for the Southern Media Group, which is based in the southern province of Guangdong and puts out a range of publications known for some of the most daring reporting in China.

He was reportedly previously sacked from his editing post after he wrote columns on violent anti-government riots in Tibetan regions in 2008 that questioned the government portrayal of the unrest as "sabotage" instigated by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Chang, who has since continued to write columns about hot-button issues such as corruption and the lack of political reform and has maintained a blog, said there was no single trigger for his firing.

"There is no particular reason. The only thing I did wrong was to persist in writing commentaries," he said.

Officials at the Southern Media Group who declined to be named told AFP that Chang's contract had expired and his departure was "normal." They declined further comment.

China insists it allows press freedom but in fact the media are tightly controlled or self-censor to avoid government shutdowns.

The government has recently indicated mounting concern over key controversial issues such as corruption, illegal seizures of land from commoners and other ills blamed for frequent angry public protests.

The media directive issued this month by the government restricted coverage of such issues and Premier Wen Jiabao this week made a rare visit to an office that handles public complaints, vowing the government would address those and other public concerns.