Recent rules issued by China's top media regulator to formalize a ban on the reporting of state secrets by the country's tightly controlled media are too vague to be useful to journalists, and will instead leave them vulnerable to individual interpretations, analysts said on Thursday.
In what is seen by some as the latest in a long string of blows to freedom of expression since President Xi Jinping came to power, China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued the ban earlier this week.
"Reporters, editors and [anchors] should not disseminate state secrets in any form via any media and they should not mention such information in their private exchanges or letters," the official Xinhua news agency quoted the new directive as saying.
"Media organizations should ... sign nondisclosure agreements with journalists in accordance with the law," it said.
Journalists are also banned from disclosing secrets in personal communications or via personal blogs and social media accounts.
In addition, they are specifically forbidden to pass them on to foreign news outlets or media organizations.
Rights activists and journalists hit out at the rules as being based on a concept that is dangerously vague.
A 'catch-all provision'
"'State secrets' has long been an ill-defined concept under Chinese law," the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an e-mailed statement.
While Article 9 of the Law on the Protection of State Secrets sets out seven types of information considered to be a "state secret," the pivotal concept of "state security" is itself vaguely defined, the group said.
Instead, the definition relies on "a catch-all provision that allows authorities to arbitrarily and retroactively apply state secret laws," it said.
Veteran journalist Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine Beijing Spring, said the rules appear at first glance to be part of an official bid to formalize rules governing state secrets.
"But the rules don't explain what a state secret is," Hu said. "The language isn't specific enough."
Instead, he said, the rules appear to be aimed at limiting the spread of information among journalists, rather than at identifying and preventing genuine leaks, which are often politically motivated.
"A lot of foreign news organizations publish classified official information and internal documents every day, and the Chinese government isn't totally ignorant of where the leaks are coming from," Hu said.
"But there's very little they can do about it, because leaks get out because it's in someone's interest as part of some factional power struggle," he said.
"They are always breaking their own rules."
China's state secrets law covers a wide range of data from industrial information to death penalty statistics, and information can be designated a state secret retroactively.
According to CHRD, a recent victim of China's "ill-defined state secret laws" is Beijing-based dissident journalist Gao Yu.
Gao, 70, was formally arrested on May 30 on a charge of “illegally disseminating state secrets overseas,” reportedly for having posted a “top secret document” to an overseas website in August 2013.
In 2009, Chinese authorities detained an Australian citizen and three Chinese colleagues working for mining giant Rio Tinto for stealing state secrets during talks on an iron ore deal.
Last month, the administration warned journalists not to publish critical reports without prior approval from their editors.
Chinese media organizations can only operate under a government-granted license, giving officials a huge amount of leverage over who works and publishes within the industry.
Editorial staff are given daily direction on how to respond to certain major news stories via directives and phone calls from the party's powerful but secretive propaganda department, which are themselves often leaked to overseas media.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.