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Ning Hui

Made to Be Broken: China’s New Rules Restricting Online Journalism

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Surviving as a journalist under China’s strict censorship regime is no picnic, but recent moves by the Chinese government have made it clear that lives of journalists in China will more likely get harder.

Chinese journalists are some of the most active users on China’s social media — not only can they uncover hidden stories from grassroots users, they can also share information and their views on stories on social media that are often censored on mainstream media.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), responsible for media oversight, recently announced that journalists will not be allowed to make “arbitrary use” of news from foreign media without authorization. Instead, they will need approval from the media outlets that employ them to set up a professional Weibo microblogging account, and they will not be allowed to tweet about their work “without authorization” either in China or on overseas websites. SARFT also put particular emphasis on discouraging journalists from quoting or reporting on information online that has not been “verified by authorized channels” or “rumors or suspicious online information.”

Journalist without “press cards” issued by SARFT may also run into trouble when they publish on websites. Without authorization, the website editors will not be allowed to “arbitrarily” publish their articles.

The announcement was somewhat ambiguous, as there are no “implementation measures” accompanying these new rules. Journalist Han Yuting (@韩雨亭) wrote, “What exactly is arbitrary use [of foreign media content]? To not be arbitrary, do we need to ask the news bureau to authorize [all the articles] or only publish requested articles?”

Perhaps the announcement merely aims to signal a tightening control over the press, rather than any actual specifics, as Caixin Magazine pointed out in its English article introducing the new rules: “The move was part of the government’s broader effort to tighten control on the press, especially at the time when the rise of a Weibo generation has made it harder for authorities to censor information.”

A “broader effort to tighten control on the press” is evident in some of the government’s recent moves. For example, the General Administration of Press and Publication, now part of the new SARFT, earlier this year initiated the most thorough annual nationwide verification of press card holders, officially in response to an earlier scandal in which government officials and businessman were revealed to be holding press cards.

The campaign sounds noble, but getting a “press card” is a tricky matter. China’s law clearly states that non-holders are forbidden to conduct news interviews. Meanwhile, websites in China, including major portals such as Sina, Netease and Tencent, all lack permission to obtain the press-card, and must quote from print media, which is exactly the grounds upon which the new rules further emphasized that websites were forbidden from publishing articles or conducting interviews by non-press card holders, at the time when citizen journalism on social media is growing rapidly.

Most media outlets simply quietly reposted the new rules on their official Weibo accounts. A few comments from users working in the media industry were curt. Meng Bo (@孟波), an editor at Sina, wrote, “Rumor has turned to truth.” Rong Jian (@荣剑2013), owner of an art center in Beijing, tweeted, “The space for public discussion is becoming increasingly confined; there may not be room for gentle suggestions anymore, much less cutting criticism.”

A journalist from a mainstream Chinese media outlet, under the condition of anonymity, told Tea Leaf Nation, “I don’t think journalists will follow [the new rule] but will probably be more careful about sensitive stories from foreign media.” His editor also said the outlet does not plan to change anything.

However, the rule was only two days old when it was ostensibly broken by hundreds of journalists and media outlets. When Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong paper closely affiliated with the Chinese government, published (and then retracted) a story about Xi Jinping taking a taxi ride in Beijing, it quick went viral and almost everyone in the journalist community on Weibo retweeted or commented on the story.

User @老辣陈香 asked, “What direction does the wind blow? Right after SARFT announced the strengthening of regulations on news editorial online activities, Ta Kung Pao broke the news that Xi Jinping had taken a ride in a taxi cab, and then domestic media were all reposting the news. In a word, the rule was brazenly violated – SARFT, what are you gonna do?”

Coincidently and rather prophetically, the People’s Daily referenced the famous “spiral of silence” theory – in which an opinion becomes dominant when those who disagree fear to speak up – on April 18, the same day as Ta Kung Pao released the fake news of Xi’s taxi ride:

The rise of the Internet, especially the fast growth of microblogs and other social media, has not only provided people with an abundance of information, but has also enhanced the imbalance of the spiral… ‘ A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’ To a certain extent, this is an accurate description of a certain website.

Two days later, a 7.0-point earthquake hit Sichuan province, immediately gathering full attention of the country’s media outlets. A picture of some journalists resting in a pigsty in the disaster zone was widely circulated in social media, with commentators praising their dedication to the profession. It soon emerged that the journalists in the photo were from Tencent.com, one of the major Internet portals in China, and thus lacked proper authorization to conduct journalistic endeavors. Sun Hai (@孙海) pointed out in his microblog: “Tencent news is covering earthquake with original reporting … The ‘journalist permit’ now exists in name only.” At least 10 reporters from Tencent were sent to cover the earthquake, according to Tencent’s feature page which carried the words, “we are on the front line.”

Despite the status quo in news – in which journalists frequently quote foreign news sources and conduct unauthorized interviews – authorities have continued issuing new rules and regulations. Yet it is obvious the “invisible war” between government’s regulation and media’s resistance is ongoing. It remains to be seen to which extent Chinese authorities in charge of regulating the media will be able to successfully exert control in a rapidly changing sphere. 

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Ning Hui

Ning Hui, or Lulu, is a media enthusiast who has worked in development and currently enjoys exploring China's emerging civil society. She is close to Beijing's contemporary art scene. She holds a BA in politics from Dalian Maritime University and a MA in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is based in Beijing.