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Newest constraint on Chinese journalists: the definition of 'secret'

Peter FordThe Christian Science Monitor

The noose around Chinese journalists’ necks grew even tighter this week, with the announcement of new rules forbidding them from publishing sensitive information on their private blogs or passing it to foreign media.

The move stiffened controls over reporters, already among the most strictly muzzled in the world, as the Chinese government steps up a campaign to limit freedom of expression.

New regulations issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film, Radio, and Television bar reporters from revealing “state secrets, commercial secrets, and information that has not been publicly disclosed” on pain of prosecution.

The catch-all rules do not define what is meant by “secret” information, meaning that this is open to interpretation by the authorities. China’s state secrets law allows information to be designated a secret retroactively.

Chinese reporters who dig up stories that their publications deem too sensitive to run sometimes post them on their personal blogs, or pass them to other domestic or foreign media. The new rules oblige reporters to sign confidentiality agreements with their employers that forbid them from doing that.

The announcement said the rules were designed to “truly strengthen the management of information” and “ensure that the use of information obtained in the course of press personnel’s professional duties is scientific and rational, standardized and orderly.”

A prominent dissident journalist, Gao Yu, was arrested on May 30 on a charge of “illegally disseminating state secrets overseas” for having allegedly passed a “top secret document” to a foreign website.

The document is believed to have been an internal Communist party memorandum outlining seven “perils” for the party, including “Western constitutional democracy,” “universal values,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s past.

Last month, the State Administration on Press and Publication forbade reporters from writing critical reports without prior approval from their employers.

“I can feel the tension of our daily work rising,” says one Chinese journalist who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The authorities are strengthening their control over us because they do not have much trust in journalists. We have to be very careful. In the past there were also many limitations but we still dared to push from time to time. Nowadays we do not dare to push anymore.”

Since President Xi Jinping came to power last year, his government has launched a fierce assault on freedom of expression; censorship has grown stricter, government critics have seen their social media accounts canceled, and bloggers risk jail for posting “rumors” that get reposted too often.

Earlier this year, China’s 250,000 accredited journalists were told that they would have to pass an exam in Marxist news values before their journalistic licenses would be renewed. Answers to the questions could be found in a 700-page manual explaining such principles as “it is absolutely forbidden for published reports to feature any comments that contradict the party line” and “the relationship between the party and the news media is that of the leader and the led.”

The new rules also ban “press personnel” from “taking posts such as special correspondent…or columnist for foreign media.”

Initial suggestions that this might oblige media such as The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg to stop publishing the contributions of their Chinese columnists, and make news agencies such as Reuters fire the scores of Chinese employees who work in their Beijing bureaus, appear unfounded, however.

The freelance columnists are not accredited journalists but analysts such as bank economists or business consultants, while Chinese employees of Western media organizations may do journalistic work but are technically considered to be researchers, and do not have official Chinese journalistic licenses. They do not appear to fall within the purview of the new regulations, though the spokesman for the State Administration for Press and Publication did not respond to a request for clarification.

“I do not think these rules are aimed at us,” says an executive at one Western news organization in Beijing, “but they are very troubling. They are just the latest in a very ominous series of efforts to limit Chinese journalists’ room for maneuver.”

China ranked 175th  out of 179 nations in this year’s press freedom rankings by the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers. Chinese censors ordered all news of that result to be removed from Chinese websites.