Sunday, January 13, 2013

Censorship in China

7 January 2013 Last updated at 12:04 GMT

Journalists at a major Chinese paper, Southern Weekly, have gone on strike in a rare protest against censorship.

The row was sparked last week when the paper's New Year message calling for reform was changed by propaganda officials.

Staff wrote two letters calling for the provincial propaganda chief to step down. Another row then erupted over control of the paper's microblog.

Supporters of the paper have gathered outside its office, reports say.

Some of the protesters carried banners that read: "We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy".

"The Nanfang [Southern] Media Group is relatively willing to speak the truth in China so we need to stand up for its courage and support it now," Ao Jiayang, one of the protesters, told Reuters news agency.

Police were at the scene but "security wasn't tight", a former journalist of the Southern Media Group told the BBC.

"They tried to ask those holding placards to show their ID cards," he said, adding that many had refused although "there wasn't much argument".

People were continuing to arrive by mid-afternoon when he left the scene, he added.

If the Southern Weekly strike continues for any length of time, this scandal will create a major headache for China's new leader, Xi Jinping. Since he took the reins of power in Beijing, Mr Xi has generated kudos for his seemingly laid-back, open style of leadership. But the Southern Weekly uproar will force him to reveal his hand when it comes to censorship.

Will he support Tuo Zhen, the zealous propaganda chief who ignited the fracas at Southern Weekly by censoring its editorial message? The highly-popular newspaper has experienced run-ins with government censors in the past, but its stellar reputation has also allowed it to publish hard-hitting reports on a wide range of sensitive topics, from working conditions at Foxconn factories to the spread of HIV in China's rural areas.

Other major Chinese media outlets have been forced to toe the government line in recent years, leaving Southern Weekly unrivalled in its pursuit of top-level investigative journalism. If Mr Xi allows Southern Weekly's special status to be wiped away, he risks tarnishing his carefully cultivated reputation as a humble man of the people.

By Keith B. Richburg, Published: January 3

BEIJING – Several influential Chinese bloggers, activists and even a popular cartoonist have had their online microblogging accounts shut down in recent days, belying the hopes of many here that the country’s new Communist Party leaders might begin to relax strict controls over the Internet and free expression.

Instead, the latest moves against “weibo,” the wildly-popular Twitter-like microblogging sites, appear to suggest that the party’s new leaders, led by General Secretary Xi Jinping, may be more intent on reforming the country’s economy than opening up space in the political sphere.

  • Organisation of mass protests via social media forced officials to scrap environmentally-questionable projects in Shifang and Qidong
  • Shaanxi official Yang Daca sacked after internet campaign exposed his many expensive watches, deemed unaffordable on a provincial official's salary
  • District-level Party boss Lei Zhengfu sacked after a video clip of him having sex with an 18-year-old girl appears on the internet

28 December 2012 Last updated at 12:58 GMT

China has tightened its rules on internet usage
to enforce a previous requirement that users fully identify themselves to service providers.

The move is part of a package of measures which state-run Xinhua news agency said would protect personal information.

But critics believe the government is trying to limit freedom of speech.

The announcement will be seen as evidence China's new leadership views the internet as a threat.

The Chinese authorities closely monitor internet content that crosses its borders and regularly block sensitive stories through use of what is known as the Great Firewall of China.

However, it has not stopped hundreds of millions of Chinese using the internet, many of them using micro-blogging sites to expose, debate and campaign on issues of national interest.

In recent months, the internet and social media have been used to orchestrate mass protests and a number of corrupt Communist Party officials have been exposed by individuals posting criticisms on the internet.

China's biggest internet firm, Sina Corp, warned earlier this year in a public document that such a move would "severely reduce" traffic to its hugely-successful micro-blogging site Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter with more than 300 million users.

Under the new rules, network service providers will also be required to "instantly stop the transmission of illegal information once it is spotted" by deleting the posts and saving the records "before reporting to supervisory authorities".

The measures are designed to "ensure internet information security, safeguard the lawful rights and interests of citizens... and safeguard national security and social public interests", and were approved by China's top legislature at the closing session of a five-day meeting on Friday, Xinhua reports.

The calls for tighter controls of the internet have been led by state media, which said that rumours spread on the web could harm the public and sow chaos and confusion.

The government has said officially that it welcomes the exposure of official abuses, but a new generation of ever bolder bloggers and commentators pose a threat that the leadership seems determined to counter, the BBC's Charles Scanlon reports.

BEIJING | Tue Dec 25, 2012 5:20am GMT
(Reuters) - China may require internet users to register with their real names when signing up to network providers, state media said on Tuesday, extending a policy already in force with microblogs in a bid to curb what officials call rumors and vulgarity.

A law being discussed this week would mean people would have to present their government-issued identity cards when signing contracts for fixed line and mobile internet access, state-run newspapers said.

"The law should escort the development of the internet to protect people's interest," Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said in a front page commentary, echoing similar calls carried in state media over the past week.

Many users say the restrictions are clearly aimed at further muzzling the often scathing, raucous - and perhaps most significantly, anonymous - online chatter in a country where the Internet offers a rare opportunity for open debate.

It could also prevent people from exposing corruption online if they fear retribution from officials, said some users.

It was unclear how the rules would be different from existing regulations as state media has provided only vague details and in practice customers have long had to present identity papers when signing contracts with internet providers.

Earlier this year, the government began forcing users of Sina Corp's wildly successful Weibo microblogging platform to register their real names.

The government says such a system is needed to prevent people making malicious and anonymous accusations online and that many other countries already have such rules.

"It would also be the biggest step backwards since 1989," wrote one indignant Weibo user, in apparent reference to the 1989 pro-democracy protests bloodily suppressed by the army.

Chinese internet users have long had to cope with extensive censorship, especially over politically sensitive topics like human rights, and popular foreign sites Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube are blocked.

Despite periodic calls for political reform, the ruling Communist Party has shown no sign of loosening its grip on power and brooks no dissent to its authority.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Huang Yan; Editing by Michael Perry)

Media: Microblogging sites a source of concern for rumours


BEIJING - China has stepped up efforts in recent weeks to rein in the hugely popular microblogging sites that have become an alternative source of real-time news for millions while challenging the Communist Party's traditional grip on information.

A man browses websites at an Internet bar in Beijing on Sept. 8. Beijing has moved to stem a tide of online criticism by tightening its grip on China's hugely popular microblogs, but experts say it will struggle to control the country's online masses.
Journalists, bloggers, media analysts and others said the new moves are part of an intensifying control of the media landscape ahead of next year's crucial Communist Party Congress, which will bring the most sweeping leadership change in China in a decade. Although leadership shuffles here are routinely decided behind the scenes and carefully choreographed for the public, they are still often fraught with uncertainty - and jittery authorities typically want to take no chances.

The 2012 leadership change will be the first since the explosion here of Weibo, the microblogging sites that are like a Chinese version of Twitter with some of the visual elements of Facebook tossed in. There are more than 200 million Weibo users, and the number is growing.

Although the traditional media here remains largely controlled by government censors, Weibo has emerged as a freewheeling forum for breaking news, exposés and edgy opinion - often to the chagrin of government censors. For example, Weibo users first broke the news of the July 23 high-speed train collision in Wenzhou that killed 40 people - even using cellphones to post photos directly from the crash site - well before traditional government-controlled media reported the accident.

Also, although newspapers, television and radio are typically owned by the government or the Party, the Weibo sites are run by private companies, meaning the censors' control had to be more indirect.

But that now seems to have changed.

Last Friday, a spokesman for the State Council Internet Office, which is under China's State Council, or cabinet, issued a statement warning Internet users to "show self-discipline and refrain from spreading rumours." The statement was carried by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

A day before, Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Internet Office, told a conference here that social networking sites posed a problem for the government. "Many people are considering how to prevent the abuse of these networks following violent crimes that took place in some parts of the world this year," Wang said, referring to rioting in Britain that was fuelled in part by youths using BlackBerry messaging and cellphones. "The Internet should not be used to jeopardize the national or public interest," Wang said.

The companies that run the most popular microblogging sites seem to have gotten the message. Sina, whose Weibo site is the most commonly used, has stepped up efforts to remove what is calls unsubstantiated rumours from its site, and indefinitely freeze the accounts of users who spread rumours.

Sina's move came after a visit to its head office in Beijing in August by the Beijing Party Secretary Liu Qi, who is also a member of the party's powerful Politburo. After that visit, Sina in a statement said it would "put more effort into attacking all kinds of rumours."

Sina also said it would monitor more closely the content of users with more than 50,000 followers.

But it seems not only rumourmongers are having their Weibo accounts suspended. In Shanghai, a Weibo microblogger using the online name "General Secretary of the Flower and Fruit Mountain" gained 20,000 followers by taking published photographs of government officials, zooming in on their luxury wristwatches and identifying their make and cost. Starting in July, "General Secretary" posted dozens of photos of officials and their watches.

The point was clear; officials on low government salaries were publicly sporting pricy Rolexes, Omegas and Piagets - the exact kind of corruption possibilities the party has said it wants to stamp put. But for his trouble, "General Secretary of the Flower and Fruit Mountain" got a call from Sina last month telling him his account was being shut down and all his previous posts deleted.

"I think the pressure on social media in China is intensifying, particularly given the strong role platforms like Sina microblog have played on recent news stories," said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong.

Bandurski said the moves to rein in Weibo were part of the "cyclical nature" of media control in China. "We generally do see press controls intensifying ahead of major political meetings, like the one next year, and ahead of other major national or international events," he said.

Sina did not respond to questions about exactly how many user accounts it has suspended since the new government edict came down. According to media reports, Sina now has a large team, led by 10 editors, combing through the millions of daily Weibo posts trying to confirm if news circulating online is true.

The efforts to rein in the microblogs come as the authorities have made other recent moves against traditional media.

Two local papers, the Beijing News - known for its aggressive reporting and investigations - and the Beijing Times were in September both placed under the control of the Beijing municipal propaganda department. Newspapers in China must have a "supervising authority," and the two papers had previously been indirectly under the control of the central government.

The Beijing News specifically had been known for what is called here "cross-regional" reporting, meaning a newspaper in one province had broader leeway to report about corruption or other problems in another province - just not the province in which it was based. Because the Beijing News was under central authority, provinces subject to its investigations could not complain.

Reporters and editors for the two papers declined to be interviewed, saying the situation was "too sensitive."

But some journalists and media advocates who did speak openly said the situation was murky and unpredictable because competing power centers are all vying for position before next year's leadership changes.

"Each official is worrying that the media will be the tool of their enemies to attack them at this moment, which will be harmful to their political life," said one Chinese investigative reporter, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of facing reprisals for discussing sensitive issues with the foreign media. "For example, if a newspaper of Hubei province reported a scandal out of Henan province, then the Henan officials will be really embarrassed."

Investigative reporters and columnists writing analysis pieces on newspaper opinion pages have also been targets of the media tightening; many of them have lost their jobs.

Deng Fei, an investigative reporter for Phoenix Weekly, said, "The circle of Chinese investigative reporters is shrinking now. Many of them want to change jobs."

He added, "This is really discouraging. I have been working in this field for 10 years. I also switched to working for a charity organization this year. I can't see a future on this road."

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