China's powerful media regulator has banned social media platforms like WeChat, and the Twitter-like Weibo services run by Sina and Tencent, from disseminating user-generated audio and video, in a move that appears to be aimed at stifling citizen reporting in a country where all news is controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
In a Dec. 16 statement, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television warned social media providers that any audio or video content forwarded by its users must have government approval in the form of transmission licenses.
"Weibo services and WeChat are not allowed to disseminate user-generated audio or video programs about current events," the rules, which were posted on the regulator's official website, said.
Social media providers are also required to limit audio and video content to that produced by state-approved providers, who already hold an "audiovisual online transmission license," it said.
Such licenses are very hard to obtain, are generally not held by online content providers, and are only held by some 300 organizations in China, sources told RFA.
Social media providers should also beware of providing content that isn't within the scope of their existing license, it warned.
Internet companies should take immediate steps to "strengthen management" of audiovisual content on their platforms, the directive said.
Media commentators told RFA that the move appears to be targeted at citizen journalism, as well as reports from overseas media organizations that might be forwarded and circulated on social media.
A media professional who asked to remain anonymous said the main target seemed to be citizen reporting during major breaking news stories inside China, however.
"I think that it's mostly aimed at situations where there is breaking news, as well as content that is political in content," the media professional said.
"This could mean someone like [former Beijing University law professor] He Weifang and his online commentaries, or it could mean radio stations like the Voice of America or Radio Free Asia," she said. "Your videos can be transmitted via WeChat very quickly indeed."
Sword of uncertainty
She said the primary motivation appeared to be political, rather than financial.
"None of this content has been approved before broadcast ... it's about controlling content from various political websites, but also content that users have made themselves, especially citizen journalists," she said.
A Sichuan-based journalist, who gave only his surname Zhang, said the authorities are hoping to heighten the sense of potential threat users feel around posting unofficial content on social media.
"I think this is about managing public opinion and ideology," Zhang said. "It's a bit like the way the trade and industry bureaus can just say that you don't have the right license [after the fact]."
"It's a bit like the coal-mines; plenty of coal-mines operate without licenses, but it's not until an accident happens that they are accused of operating without a license," he said.
"It's like a sword hanging over your head; one day, they could decide to deal with you, and then they'll accuse you of [posting content] without a license."
A freelance journalist who asked not to be named also said the authorities are worried about their ability to control media coverage of breaking news.
"Whenever something happens, a story starts to break, anywhere in China, for example, the urban management officials beating somebody up, or seizing their goods, or there is a traffic accident, or especially forced evictions, then local people will post the video online immediately, by way of protest," he said.
"There are so many videos like that, and anyone can post them online."
China has already moved to ban the country's internet portals like Tencent and Sina from conducting any independent journalism of their own, requiring them to post syndicated content from the state-run Xinhua news agency and state broadcaster CCTV instead.
The country's internet regulator in August ordered all websites to start round-the-clock monitoring of content, holding editors personally responsible for "problem" content not in line with official narratives issued by the government.
Some 40 journalists in jail
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has promoted an ideology of "self-confidence," linked to Beijing's growing clout on the world stage and the rejection of "Western" or "foreign" notions like human rights, democracy, and judicial independence.
A Fujian-based rights activist who asked to remain anonymous said the rules are "very unfair" to ordinary people.
"For them to just issue a bunch of rules like this is extremely unfair to ordinary citizens," the activists said. "Social tensions are on the increase at the moment, and there is already so much unequal access to resources."
Nearly 40 journalists, many of them citizen journalists, are currently behind bars amid an ongoing crackdown by the government on the media, the Paris-based Reporters San Frontieres said in a report last week.
Authorities in Sichuan detained Huang Qi, founder of the citizen journalism and human rights website Tianwang, on Nov. 28.
Huang, 51, founded Tianwang in 1998 with his then wife Zeng Li to help people locate loved ones missing in the 1989 crackdown on the student-led democracy movement.
However, the website soon started covering protests, petitions, and the detention of activists, petitioners and journalists, relying on a nationwide network of citizen journalists and volunteers.
Also currently detained are bloggers Li Tingyu and Lu Yuyu, who researched and compiled reports of popular protests across the country, and Hubei-based citizen journalist and researcher Liu Feiyue, who founded the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.