China Bans Social Media Tweets From Scene of Breaking News Stories

A draconian new cybersecurity law goes into effect, along with rules requiring all online news content to have an existing license from the government.

China's new cyber-security law, which took effect on June 1, contains provisions that could end the role played by social media in keeping people informed about events in their own country.

China's draconian new cybersecurity law, which came into effect on Thursday, is more likely to curb the free flow of online information, particularly about breaking news stories, than to protect the country's 730 million internet users, commentators told RFA.

The legislation, adopted by the National People's Congress last November, aims to "monitor, defend and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources."

But while the official media have focused on its provisions for cyberattacks and leaking of personal data, associated regulations also aim to end the role played by social media in keeping people informed about events in their own country.

"The government's cybersecurity law isn't really aimed at protecting ordinary people; it's aimed at protecting the state," former TV journalist Zhu Xinxin told RFA.

"This legislation is all aimed at setting limits on freedom of expression and communication, and at taking away the general public's right to be informed."

Under the new law, websites, forums, blogs and social media platforms including messaging apps are required to apply for an internet news providers' license before they are allowed to transmit or post any news not already produced by tightly controlled state media.

Tweets about breaking news from the scene of an event would fall into that category, so service providers would be obliged to delete them regardless of their content under the new blanket ban.

"This is the crux of the cybersecurity law," online activist Xiucai Jianghu told RFA. "Before, if you retweeted news items or tweeted about a breaking news story ... you wouldn't be breaking the law."

"Now all of that ... including tweeting about the darker side of the government's actions, fast-breaking news and mass incidents, is illegal," he said.

Chilling effect

Current affairs commentator Jiang Chun said the new rules will likely have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in China, already severely limited.

"I'm sure it will stop the more timid people from sending out a post," Jiang said. "But ultimately, when you have a government that has such concentrated power, it's going to do whatever it wants, anyway."

The law also provides for the country's leaders to temporarily take control of the internet in response to incidents that "threaten public security."

Internet service providers will be forced to help police and other security agencies to investigate crimes and safeguard national security, which includes providing customer information when required.

The law includes provisions to "protect key information infrastructure from attack, intrusion, disturbance and damage."

Shanghai netizen Ma Yalian said such controls over public expression go far beyond what is needed to ensure public order, however.

"Now they have this law, they can say that they are proceeding according to law, and there are all kinds of laws now aimed at curbing public freedom of expression online," Ma said.

"Previously, the authorities had no real answer to [online public opinion], so they've come up with this as a way of dealing with it ... of course it's better for them if it comes out ahead of the 19th Party Congress [later this year]," she said.

'Too draconian'

From Thursday, only state-owned enterprises will be allowed to run online news and editorial services, under related regulations, which will also transfer full powers to regulate online news to the Cyberspace Administration from China's cabinet, the State Council, it said.

The regulations apply to "news reports about public affairs such as politics, economy, military and diplomacy, as well as comments and reports on emergencies, and news services include publishing, forwarding and broadcasting news."

According to Xiucai Jianghu: "They are now able to control online speech whenever they choose."

"Anything that doesn't suit the government won't be allowed to spread online, because they will be able to say it is in breach of national security," he said. "This law is too draconian."

The law also seeks to punish online crime and "safeguard the order and security of cyberspace," and state media have warned that the actions of individual users and organizations won't be allowed to damage "national security, interests or honor."

"Online activities that attempt to overthrow the socialist system, split the nation, undermine national unity, advocate terrorism and extremism are all prohibited," according to Xinhua news agency.

The law also targets anyone considered to be "inciting ethnic hatred, discrimination and spreading violence and obscene information."

State security and ethnic hatred charges have repeatedly been used to jail peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in recent years, including ethnic Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and veteran political journalist Gao Yu.

Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san, Wen Yuqing and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.