China's powerful cyberspace regulator on Thursday said it had issued a whitelist of 381 media organizations that are permitted to syndicate online news content in a bid to stamp out "false information" on the country's tightly controlled Internet.
The whitelist features many of the country's best-known official media outlets, all of which are subject to close censorship by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and the majority of which are traditional print and broadcast media with an online presence.
Just over a quarter of the places on the list are taken up by media outlets under the direct control of party or government departments, including party stalwarts the People's Daily Online and the online version of the People's Liberation Army newspaper, the Cyberspace Administration said in a statement on its website.
The rest are given over to provincial and regional media, out of which just 20 slots are allocated to online-only news media, and limited to regional government websites like Anhui Online.
Cutting-edge media like the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper and the 21st Century Business Herald don't appear on the list, meaning that they can't syndicate their news content to other sites.
"The Cyberspace Administration of China has published this list of which news organizations are permitted to syndicate online content in a bid to strictly limit the sources of news used by online news and information providers," the agency said in a statement on its website on Thursday.
"[The aim is] to give less and less room for the transmission of false information, and to preserve an environment conducive to the orderly dissemination of news and information," it said.
"All websites must limit the news they provide online to content sourced from news organizations on the list," it said.
"The source of content must be clearly identified, and news content must not be misrepresented."
The move is in keeping with the long-running policy of the party's powerful Central Propaganda Department, according to Guangzhou-based online writer and activist Ye Du.
"They are issuing this so-called whitelist now, under the general heading of gaining total ideological control over the Internet," Ye told RFA.
He said policies governing the sourcing of online news content have always been in place, but are now being formalized and made public.
Ye said publications like the Southern Metropolis Daily and the Southern media group had been on internally circulated lists of banned content for some time.
"It's totally to be expected that they didn't make it onto the whitelist," he said.
An active approach
Social media activist Wu Gan, known online by his nickname "The Butcher," said that government censors have moved from a passive to an active approach when it comes to limiting what Chinese people can see online.
"They are changing their propaganda methods when it comes to managing the Internet and the media," Wu said. "They are taking the initiative now, and they have begun to lay down some regulations."
"Then they will tighten them further and crack down [on those who step out of line]."
Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, agreed.
"This is about guiding and controlling, so that the media stick to the party line," Li said.
Meanwhile, Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Wang Quanping said the move is part of an official backlash following a January 2013 protest outside the Southern newspaper group offices in Guangzhou after the paper hit back at official censorship of its editorial on reforms.
"The New Year's incident two years ago over the Southern newspaper group's editorial had a huge impact," Wang said. "It got both the Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend kicked off the list of organizations permitted to syndicate news."
"Also, they make the government feel very uncomfortable, so that's why they want to clamp down on them," he said.
But Wang said he didn't believe that further media controls would lead to greater social stability, as the government hopes.
"Without justice, there can be no stability," Wang said. "They're not going to achieve their aim by controlling the media."
China ranked eighth on a list of the most repressive media regimes in a report last year by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Journalists behind bars
At least 44 journalists are behind bars in 2015, the most since the CPJ began its annual census in 1990, including veteran political journalist Gao Yu, who is accused of "leaking state secrets overseas."
Gao, who was jailed for seven years by a Beijing court last month, has denied leaking a 2014 party white paper known as Document No. 9, saying it was already available online.
Document No. 9 lists "seven taboos" to be avoided in public debate, including online and in China's schools and universities, including democracy, freedom of the press, judicial independence and criticism of the party's historical record.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.