Mainland tabloid Southern Metropolis Daily has fired its editor and punished its deputy editor-in-chief after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments on state media were juxtaposed with an image of a sea burial on the paper’s front page.

The paper covered the the News and Public Opinion Work Conference on February 19, during which Chinese President Xi Jinping said that “all news media run by the party and the government bear the surname of ‘party’”. The story was on the front page of the paper’s Shenzhen edition on February 20.

The paper’s front page.

However, right underneath Xi’s statements was a story about reformist Yuan Geng’s sea burial. The two headlines were placed in such a way that if the words on the right were read horizontally from left to right and then downwards, the phrase read: “media having Party as their surnames, the soul returns to the sea”.

The Guangzhou edition of the paper, however, showed a picture of Xi visiting CCTV.

Read vertically, the phrase becomes “media having party as their surnames, the soul returns to the sea”

According to Southern Media Group’s internal documents, after a review conducted by a party member on behalf of the company, it was decided deputy editor-in-chief Wang Haijun would be given a demerit, while editor Liu Yuxia would be fired, BBC Chinese reported.

The document said that the editor “seriously lacked political sensitivity”, resulting in a grave mistake on the front page. It also said that it has been maliciously interpreted by netizens online, resulting in a “severe case of misdirection”. Although measures have been taken to control the damage, it was an especially unfortunate incident given that it involved “Xi’s important lesson on the work of news media”, it said.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.