Several Chinese media outlets have appeared to back journalists at the Southern Weekly newspaper embroiled in a row over censorship.
News portals carried a state-sanctioned editorial criticizing the journalists.
But they added a disclaimer saying that posting the piece did not mean that they shared the views it expressed.
Meanwhile journalists at the Southern Weekly are reported to be engaged in talks with propaganda officials over the row, AP reports.
A Reuters reporter outside the paper’s headquarters said police broke up brief scuffles between supporters of the Southern Weekly and another group denouncing the paper.
The row began when a New Year message in the paper – also known as Southern Weekend – that had called for guaranteed constitutional rights was changed by censors prior to publication.
Staff wrote two letters calling for the provincial propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, to step down. Another row then erupted over control of the paper’s microblog when a message was posted denying that the piece had been changed.
A number of staff went on strike and protesters demonstrated outside the paper’s offices.
On Tuesday, an editorial from the state-run Global Times was republished on multiple news sites – the result, according to some reports, of a government directive.
Copies of the directive circulating online called state control of the media an “unwavering” principle, blamed the incident on “hostile outside forces” and said workers should not voice support for Southern Weekly journalists.
The Global Times editorial, meanwhile, said local provincial officials were not behind changes to the New Year message, adding that activists outside China’s media industry – including US-based blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng – had been “inciting some media to engage in confrontation”.
It said that reform “out of step with political development” was unrealistic.
“For media professionals, it is clear that under the reality of China’s current state of affairs, the country is unlikely to have the ‘absolutely free media’ that is dreamed of by those activists.
“The Southern Weekly issue will not be concluded with a surprise ending.”
Major web portals including Sina, Sohu and Tencent republished the article. But their disclaimers said that publication did not mean they shared its opinion or endorsed its content.
Print editions of at least four well-known newspapers – Xiao Xiang Morning Post, Shanghai Morning Post, China Youth Daily, Oriental Daily – appeared not to be carrying the piece.
Chinese media are supervised by so-called propaganda departments that often change content to align it with party thinking.
Southern Weekly, based in Guangdong, is one of the country’s most respected newspapers, known for its hard-hitting investigations and for testing the limits of freedom of speech.
Its next edition is due out on Thursday. Editors and propaganda officials are engaged in negotiations over the terms under which the journalists would be willing to publish, AP reported, citing an unidentified Southern Weekly editor.
The row is being keenly watched as a test for China’s new leaders, who took over in November last year.
It has also sparked a reaction in cyberspace, with comments from prominent bloggers and journalists.
Actress Yao Chen posted the newspaper’s logo and quoted Russia’s Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in a microblog post to her 32 million followers: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”