Now China can censor journalists before they even start reporting a story

June 19, 2014
June 19, 2014

Everybody knows Chinese reporters have it rough. There are 32 of them in jail, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ most recent figures. But they’ve usually been arrested only for stories that are published, well after research has uncovered the dirty secrets. Now, thanks to new rules (link in Chinese) from the main media regulator, the government can pre-empt them.

The rules say that “journalists and their news organizations are forbidden from initiating critical reporting that has not been approved.” Naturally, the announcement does not attempt to define “critical reporting”. Journalists who break the rules could see the cancellation of what are sometimes innocuously called “press cards” but are actually licenses to work as journalists. Doing interviews or research without a license is technically illegal, though internet-powered citizen journalism has made this law harder to enforce.

The new rules prohibit a host of other journalistic activities. Reporters may not do reporting “across industries or focus areas,” meaning they could face penalties for not sticking to their assigned beats. News outlets are also forbidden from establishing businesses in advertising, publishing or public relations. And they can’t even circulate “critical” documents internally or on private websites.

The government is ostensibly cracking down on “bogus journalists,” as it called them in a recent announcement that over 14,000 press cards had been revoked.

As well as suppressing criticism, the government’s new measures appear designed to address corruption scandals involving news outlets found to be practicing “black PR”—garnering profits through paid-for content or blackmail. Government shutdowns of news outlets that abuse their power and reach feature regularly in official media, and state news agency Xinhua says proof of such transgressions could result in journalists and their editors being detained.

The most prominent recent scandal has seen executives at state television broadcaster CCTV arrested on corruption charges. They appear to have gotten too accustomed to using the broadcaster’s tremendous influence for profit. “A company can protect itself from a consumer show attack by convincing high-level government authorities to intervene, and/or by working with public relations companies,” a CCTV source told Chinese business news magazine Caixin in a recent article.

But the timing of the anti-corruption rules doesn’t appear to relate to the heightened censorship of “critical reporting.” Indeed, interested parties have long been able to pay “black PR” firms to have positive stories posted on news portals, negative stories taken down, or search terms for competitors blocked. An exposé published last year, also by Caixin and summarized in English by Tech in Asia, showed that one such firm made over 50 million yuan in 2011 ($7.9 million at the time).

Apparently the rules don’t, however, stop Xinhua from offering “tailored news” to willing buyers, a new service it calls “We offer you pick.”

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