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The Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television sent out a circular to news outlets stating that it had passed new restrictions on journalists. It is now against the law for  journalists to write reports from outside their beats or regions. If they want to write a “critical report,” they have to get permission from their employer. Furthermore, journalists are forbidden to set up their own websites.

The authorities claim the new rules were a direct result of recent scandals involving a few journalists participating in extortion and bribery. However, the cases were only related to small local news outlets. Journalists are worried that the government is using these scandals to create more far-reaching restrictions than to simply protect against bribery.

For example, if a journalist writes a report that is outside their region and it involves exposing government corruption or simply makes the government look bad, the authorities can arrest said journalist based on the new rules.

The circular stated, “journalists who break the law must be handed over to judicial authorities and [they] will be stripped of their license to report.” The new rules make it easier to imprison journalists who speak out against the government because journalists often have to write reports using sources from outside their regions.

A Hong Kong-based journalist named Ji Shuoming said that “aggressive investigative journalists will find it hard to write articles without venturing outside their beats or regions.”

These new restrictions are yet another attack on freedom of the press in China. Since the country is already ranked 173 out of 179 countries by Reporters without Borders, this new development further exacerbates an already dire situation. There have been other restrictive rules enacted recently as well.

In 2013, Chinese journalists had to follow rules restricting reports on “rumors.” This means that it is illegal to post any false rumor that is read 5,000 times or shared on social media more than 500 times. Of course, a rumor could be anything the government decides it does not like. The most recent use of this rule occurred this past April, when a Chinese blogger was sentenced to three years for posting a story related to corruption in the government.

Some Chinese journalists remain optimistic though. Despite recent restrictions, many journalists have been able to report on scandalous stories. For example, the magazines Southern Weekend and Caixin have still been able to report on stories that follow the money trail of government officials. They break stories of corruption and other serious issues in Chinese society such as climate change and inequality.

The worry now is whether or not the most recent set of rules will hurt investigative reporting. The following months will show how far the government is willing to go in order to silence journalists and abuse these rules for their own agenda.

– Eleni Lentz-Marino

Sources: New York Times, Foreign Policy, LA Times, Reporters without Borders, Reuters
Photo: Worldcrunch