The ruling Chinese Communist Party has issued a sharp rebuke to the cutting-edge Caixin media group, ordering a two-month ban on republishing its content.
Censorship instructions issued to the media by the accused Caixin Online "repeatedly violating news and propaganda discipline" during the past year.
The website had also published "problematic reports" that had caused "seriously negative" repercussions when republished elsewhere, an Oct. 11 directive reposted by the China Digital Times website said.
Caixin is being punished with two months' suspension from the party's list of news outlets whose content may be freely syndicated and reposted online, it said.
"During that period, other websites are forbidden to repost its content," the directive said.
Employees who answered the phone at Caixin Online and the state news agency Xinhua declined to comment, saying they didn't know about the matter.
An media source who requested anonymity told RFA that the directive came from the Cyberspace Administration, which administers the media whitelist, but said that it is still unclear which report had caused the offense.
"They have stopped them from syndicating copy for two months," the source said. "They didn't say why exactly, and there has been no announcement; the news is just circulating on chat groups."
Opposition to new lawyer regulations
The directive comes after Caixin Online covered the opposition by a large group of Chinese rights lawyers to a set of new regulations from the ministry of justice threatening them with the loss of their jobs if they speak to the media or take protest actions on behalf of their client.
Under the new rules, law firms are required not to "indulge or condone" any form of protest against injustice, including forced confessions or torture of their clients, even in the form of signature campaigns, open letter, or via social media.
Caixin had reported that some 168 Chinese lawyers had written to the State Council complaining that the regulations violate the Constitution. The report has now been deleted, however.
China'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.
Media regulators have already banned the country's internet portals like Tencent and Sina from conducting any independent journalism of their own, requiring them to post syndicated content from organizations on the approved list.
Media organizations not on the approved list of content providers for syndication are limited to income gained from their website alone.
The move comes after a long string of attacks from President Xi Jinping's administration on freedom of speech that have included management takeover at the reform-minded political journal Yanhuang Chunqiu and the closure of outspoken analysis website ConsensusNet, or Gongshiwang.
Chongqing-based political analyst Zhang Qi said the move could be linked to behind-the-scenes political maneuvering at the highest echelons of the party leadership ahead of the forthcoming sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress.
"The sixth plenum is likely to cover the issue of who will be the next-generation leaders-in-waiting," Zhang said. "This could mean that there will be some last-minute in-fighting between President Xi's faction and that of [former president] Jiang Zemin."
But he added: "It also shows that there is a lack of good faith in dealings between the government and the rest of society."
Anhui-based rights activist and former prosecutor Shen Liangqing said the Communist Party is now close to achieving a monopoly on all domestic media outlets.
"The party has monopolized all the media, because it wants to force them to act as its mouthpieces," Shen said. "The party may relax at times, and tighten up at others, and the media will have to follow suit."
"The Propaganda Department has now taken Caixin off the media whitelist, because they offended somebody."
He said major political in-fighting is likely behind the decision.
"The fact that [Caixin] has been sanctioned shows that we have a power struggle in which the rule of law is irrelevant, and a media with no press freedom," Shen said.
Caixin on Thursday carried an article from the official Xinhua news agency quoting President Xi as calling for "strengthened governance" across all areas of national life.
"We should continue to strengthen and innovate social governance, and working on improving a social governance system with Chinese characteristics," the agency quoted Xi as saying.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.