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BEIJING—Editors at two outspoken Chinese newspapers have been removed from their posts months before a politically sensitive handover of power in the country, press freedom groups said Thursday.
The publisher and deputy editor of Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post, Lu Yan and Sun Jian, were reportedly removed on Wednesday, days after the Guangzhou-based New Express moved its chief editor Lu Fumin to a sister title.
Press freedom groups linked the moves to a tightening of controls on the media ahead of a 10-yearly leadership change in China's ruling Communist party that is due to begin later this year.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said it was "deeply concerned" by the development, which came in the week top security official Zhou Yongkang called on propaganda chiefs to intensify their efforts.
"The upcoming change in leadership within China's Politburo Standing Committee is having a chilling effect on press freedom within the country, with a heightened censorship regime swiftly censoring and punishing any independent political commentary," the IFJ said in a statement.
Separately, the IFJ said Chinese censors had barred the media from reporting next week's first anniversary of a deadly high-speed train crash in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou, although this could not be confirmed independently.
The crash, in which at least 40 people were killed and almost 200 injured, sparked a public outcry amid claims the government had overlooked safety concerns in the rush to build the world's biggest high-speed rail network.
David Bandurski, who runs the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, said Beijing was "especially sensitive" at the moment.
"So on one hand you are going to see the media trying to push further, allowing journalists to test the limits, and when the environment is tightening like this, it can get on the wrong side of the wrong person," he told AFP.
All Chinese media outlets have links to state-run companies, but some newspapers and magazines have a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what the censors will allow them to get away with.
The Oriental Morning Post is considered one of the more outspoken, particularly in its coverage of disasters including last year's high-speed train crash in eastern China and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.