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Beijing has underlined its determination to keep control of the media by issuing detailed regulations governing the operations of online news organisations and threatening fines and closure for those that disobey.
The rules are the latest in a series of moves by the government and ruling Communist party intended to strengthen their grip on what the public sees and hears, and to silence dissenting voices.
”Online news service units should …serve the people, uphold the correct leadership of public opinion, and protect the interests of the nation and public,” say the regulations, which were published in the official media at the weekend.
”The state encourages online news service units to transmit healthy and civilised news that will help to raise the quality of the nationality, push forward economic development and promote social development,” they say.
The rules, which largely codify and clarify current controls, took effect immediately and do not appear likely to have much immediate effect on the news content available to China’s 100m internet users.
Beijing has long banned unapproved or foreign-funded companies from providing news coverage and closely monitors the online output of important portals such as US-listed Sina.com and Sohu.com. Online and offline journalists and editors whose stories anger officials can face demotion, sacking and imprisonment.
The rules do not directly affect bloggers or amateur online essayists, who are routinely subject to harsh punishment if their output is judged politically dangerous or harmful to society.
However, the move to codify the controls could make it harder for online ventures to exploit regulatory ambiguity to expand their operations into areas related to politics or current events. Any organisation found publishing or distributing news online will be subject to unspecified administrative punishment.
But the rules appear to give a green light to online coverage of areas such as entertainment and the technology industry, since they define online news as reporting and commentary on politics, economics, military affairs, diplomacy, public issues and social “incidents”.
The rules set out a system of registration and supervision of online news organisations that include newspapers and broadcasters distributing news on the internet or through telecoms services, as well as websites that republish content from other sources.
To win approval, news organisations must have experienced staff and registered premises and capital, and an internal system that makes clear who is responsible for what is published.
Online media are barred from issuing news judged seditious, harmful to social order, superstitious or “forbidden by laws or administrative regulations”.
Organisations that flout the rules can be fined up to Rmb30,000 ($3,700, €3,100, £2,100) or shut down.