February 24, 2016

Foreign news organizations — including those from the United States and the UK — may soon have a much harder time publishing online in China. The Chinese government is getting ready to impose new restrictions on foreign media that will take effect in March:

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s new rules (link in Chinese) could, if they were enforced as written, essentially shut down China as a market for foreign news outlets, publishers, gaming companies, information providers, and entertainment companies…

The strictures demonstrate a hardening of relations between foreign media and the Chinese government, according to Radio Free Asia’s Wong Lok-to:

The move shows Beijing taking a much harder line towards foreign-produced online content than under previous rules, which allowed licensed foreign-invested joint ventures to publish original and adapted creative content online.

But it’s still unclear how the new guidelines will actually affect the foreign press, said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The simple answer is that we don’t know what the impact of new regulations will be,” he said. “The wording’s unclear and it’s also unclear how they’ll be enforced, if at all, and to what extent.”

News outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal don’t publish in China, Dietz said, and their servers are usually in Hong Kong or elsewhere outside of the country. The government could block them, he said, “which is what they’re doing most of the time anyway.”

Likewise, The Associated Press doesn’t publish in China for Chinese audiences, said Paul Colford, vice president and director of media relations for the AP.

“As in most parts of the world, we are a wholesaler that provides news to a wide and diverse range of news organization customers and clients, such as the Chinese news organization Xinhua, which makes its own decisions about which AP stories to publish.”

Looking at the restrictions in a broader context, it appears that China is flexing its muscles in relation with the foreign press, Dietz said.

“It’s kind of China saying ‘We control this, this is ours, you’re not going to change the narrative about China,'” Dietz said. “‘Try as hard as you can.'”

But it’s plain that this is yet another hurdle that journalists, both foreign and domestic, have to overcome to work in China. Here’s a look at a five others:

1. Spreading “false news” is punishable with jail time.

On Nov. 1, new rules promised penalties for “those convicted of spreading false news about disasters or epidemics,” according to a report from CPJ.

In 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate — China’s top court and prosecutor’s office — issued a ruling that social media users who post libelous information viewed more than 5,000 times or forwarded more than 500 times can be charged with defamation and jailed for up to three years.

2. China jails more journalists than any country in the world.

CPJ’s 2015 report on imprisoned journalists put China in the top spot. In 2015, 49 journalists were imprisoned in the country. That’s one quarter of all journalists jailed around the world, according to CPJ.

Screen shot, Committee to Protect Journalists

Screen shot, Committee to Protect Journalists

3. State-sanctioned media are airing forced confessions.

Last month, Reporters Without Borders renewed calls for sanctions against state-owned CCTV and Xinhua. Both the network and the news agency have aired and published what Reporters Without Borders calls false confessions from journalists and citizens.

“By knowingly peddling lies and statements were presumably obtained under duress, CCTV and Xinhua become mass propaganda weapons and cease de facto to be news media.”

4. Foreign correspondents, if they even get press credentials, face intimidation.

A May 2015 survey from the The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found that working in China isn’t getting easier.

— 72 percent of respondents said their reporting was hindered by authorities or “unidentified individuals” while working in the country.
— 31 percent of respondents said that their Chinese assistants had been harassed.
— 25 percent of respondents said that their sources faced reprisal for providing them information.
— 22 percent of respondents said that Chinese authorities were applying pressure to their editors overseas.
— 10 reporters said that Chinese authorities threatened to revoke or fail to renew their visas because of their reporting.

5. Bloggers are being silenced.

Poynter’s Jim Warren spoke last year with Evan Osnos, a former Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, about independent online voices in China.

There was a period, in 2011 and 2012, when it seemed that the energy of the Chinese Internet was approaching a point when the technical powers of constraint — censoring software, online monitoring — would no longer be able to keep up with the expansion of critical commentary.”

“But then the government adopted a new strategy: offline, case-by case pursuit and control. It approached individual bloggers and writers and made it clear that they would be punished for the effects of their voices.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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