New regulations forbidding China's tightly controlled state media from reporting "critical" news items, even in private, are the latest in a long string of blows aimed at curbing criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and at the country's media industry in general, analysts said.
Under new guidelines issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, reporters in China are now forbidden to publish critical reports without the prior approval of their employer.
The rules, which were issued in a circular sent out to news organizations and propaganda departments nationwide, also take aim at journalists who take bribes or extort money from sources for coverage.
"Journalists who break the law must be handed over to judicial authorities," the circular said. "Journalists who violate the rules will be stripped of their license to report."
New blow to freedom of speech
Zan Aizong, a former state journalist-turned-freelance in the eastern province of Zhejiang, said the move was the latest in a series of attacks on freedom of speech in China.
"This directive is clearly intended to close off all possible channels for criticism," Zan said. "You can't report outside your job description or outside your beat. And what does private mean here?"
The new rules ban journalists from setting up their own websites or video sites, or writing internal reports with critical content.
Reporters are also barred from conducting interviews or reporting on areas outside their formal "beat."
But the circular gave no details about what content would be judged "critical" by the authorities.
It said that media organizations whose journalists broke the rules would have their licenses to publish revoked.
Li Datong, ousted former editor of the cutting-edge China Youth Daily supplement "Freezing Point," said he was unsurprised to hear of fresh controls aimed at the media.
"I don't think this is particularly significant, because the Chinese media is already under the thumb of state power, every moment of every day," Li said. "Any independence and creativity has been crushed out of them entirely."
According to Jiangsu-based veteran journalist Xu Xiang, the rules come at a time of "no hope" for the news media in China.
"These rules have put shackles on Chinese journalists who already abide by the rules," he said. "There is less and less room for news in China."
Meanwhile, corruption is spreading fast.
"This is because news and money are now bound up together, so there is 'compensated news' and compensation for not publishing news," Xu said. "This directive shows us just how messy things have gotten."
He said the ban on "private" reporting appeared to be aimed at stopping journalists from moonlighting and "earning private money."
According to Xu Xiang, China's print media is facing the problem of dwindling readership, and a widespread lack of funds.
He said the financial problems facing the industry have led to widespread corruption, which in turn fuels a stream of "fraudulent and negative news."
"A newspaper might charge a spike fee not to publish a negative story, or they might charge an "advertising fee" with a proper receipt to publish a positive story," he said.
"After the payment is credited, the journalist can make between 10 and 30 percent in commission, which has now become one of the unspoken rules of the industry," Xu said.
However, journalists say such "clean-up" operations are all too often used to target journalists working to expose official wrongdoing or support the least privileged sections of society.
Last month, authorities in Beijing criminally detained a freelance journalist working for the overseas-based Boxun news website after he contributed "false stories."
Beijing resident Xiang Nanfu, who often writes under the pen-name Fei Xiang, had written a number of stories for Boxun that official media reports said were "fabricated," including a report that the Chinese government had harvested organs from living people and buried them alive, and one alleging that police had beaten a pregnant woman to death in a land dispute.
And Chinese authorities last month placed outspoken veteran journalist Gao Yu under criminal detention on charges of leaking state secrets amid a widening crackdown on dissidents ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Gao was paraded on the state television channel, where she was shown, her face blurred on screen, apparently confessing to having obtained a highly confidential document and sent it to an overseas website.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service and Bi Zimo for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.