The ruling Chinese Communist Party has denied licenses to journalists employed by commercial news websites like Sina and Sohu, while handing them out to those employed by government media stalwarts like the People's Daily and Xinhua news agency.
Press cards were issued to nearly 600 reporters from 14 online news organizations, but only those directly controlled by the government, Xinhua reported.
Reporters working for commercial content providers like Sina and Sohu were not included in the list, published jointly by the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China and the country's media and publications ministry, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).
Journalists and political commentators slammed the move as yet another step backwards for press freedom in China.
Veteran journalist Dai Qing said commercially produced news from outlets like Sina and Tencent had already become a part of daily life for many people.
"Basically what this boils down to is that they have put yet another hurdle in the way of any journalist of conscience, with this new pass, without which they won't be able to interview anyone," she said.
Journalists and lawyers under pressure
Dai, whose own official press pass was revoked after her detention in the wake of the 1989 crackdown on the student-led protests on Tiananmen Square, said journalists and lawyers are coming under increasing pressure in China.
"Journalists and lawyers, particularly in the last few years, have tried to stand up for justice and protect the rights of the people in the midst of huge social change," Dai said.
"We mourn the journalists who made sacrifices on the front line, and as a former journalist myself, I have huge respect for them."
China led the world in imprisoning journalists in 2014, with a total of 29 behind bars, while the Chinese authorities are also holding 73 netizens out of a global total of 178, Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) said in a recent report.
Jiangsu-based journalist Sun Lin said the authorities are using the licensing measure as a way of "directing news and public opinion."
"They have organized a lot of people in the 50-cent army [of pro-government commentators]to shut down accounts and delete posts, to muzzle freedom of speech," Sun told RFA.
"But they can't succeed entirely; once any news has made it overseas, then it will continue to be broadcast far and wide," he said, adding: "The Internet is a force to be reckoned with."
According to Cyberspace Administration official Jiang Jun, the credentials ensure that journalists working exclusively for online media will be given the same rights as their colleagues in traditional media.
Flouting ban on original reporting
More press cards look set to follow, but they will only be issued to "qualified and experienced" reporters, as they are aimed at "regulating" interviews and editing further, Xinhua quoted officials as saying.
Commercial online content providers have long flouted a formal ban on original reporting, while toeing the line when warned off "sensitive" stories by the propaganda ministry.
The new press passes look set to limit their newsgathering activities still further, however.
Meanwhile, the newly approved journalists will be given professional training to ensure their websites become "bastions of online news publicity," SAPPRFT official Wu Shangzhi told reporters.
Former China Youth Daily editor Li Datong said the move wouldn't be enforceable for much of the online content produced by commercial providers, however.
"When they say that this confers the right to carry out interviews, we're really talking about interviews with government officials ... They have no way to prevent other interviews from taking place" Li said.
"Does this mean that online media can't write their own reports on sporting or cultural matters? Not only is this unlawful; it's also unreasonable."
"They are afraid of a threat to their grip on power," he said.
Nanjing-based author Jiang Chun said controls on freedom of expressionhave tightened considerably in China in recent years, migrating to social media, including popular messaging app WeChat.
"There are even very tight controls on WeChat nowadays," Jiang said. "They are deleting quite unexceptionable articles now."
"It's as if they have gone crazy," he said, citing the closure of a popular account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo belonging to lawyer Yuan Yulai.
"Yuan Yulai had 20 million followers, and his account was deleted," Jiang said. "And when anything big happens, you can't get any information, so of course there are going to be rumors."
"They should allow the media to report the news."
According to official media reports, China now has about 208,000 registered journalists, including more than 1,100 reporters working for Internet news portals.
China ranks 175th in the world, just fifth from bottom, in RSF's Press Freedom Index.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.