Chinas Web News Censorship Revealed


2007.10.11
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Sept. 14, 2006: Chinese shoppers walk past a kiosk selling domestic Chinese newspapers at People's Square in Shanghai. Photo: AFP/Mark Ralston

WASHINGTON—China has a wide-ranging and sophisticated system of surveillance and control that it uses to direct exactly what news its netizens may access, a report from an Internet industry insider says.

The powerful Internet Information Administrative Bureau keeps tabs on most major news sites, many of which are registered and licensed to operate out of Beijing, according to the report, published by the Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).

Three kinds of ban

“The Chinese authorities send orders of three kinds—bans issued before publication of a report, bans issued after publication of a report, and propaganda instructions,” the report said.

“In May and June 2006, for example, a total of 74 directives (48 prior bans, 4 post-publication bans, and 22 propaganda directives) were sent to commercial Web sites registered in the capital by the Beijing Internet Information Administrative Bureau.”

As Beijing counts down to its long-awaited hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, RSF is calling on China to relax controls on the media and free some 30 journalists and 50 Internet writers currently detained, some of them since the 1980s.

The report confirms previous reports regarding China’s Internet filters, which block keywords considered “subversive” by the censors. The law severely punishes “divulging state secrets,” “subversion,” and “defamation”.

Vincent Brossel, head of the RSF Asian section, said: “This one is special because it was written by a Chinese technician working in an Internet company, so he has been the witness and the victim of this censorship system.”

Strict controls

“He has described in detail how the Chinese government has developed its internet censorship system into the huge system it is now...Here is the proof that there is a massive problem with freedom of expression on the Internet in China,” Brossel told RFA’s Mandarin service.

Of course we are very annoyed by this form of management, but as for complaining about it, who are you going to complain to in China? To the Party?

According to the report, the Beijing Information Office has introduced a new system of “license points” for Web sites. As well as being fined, sites can have points withdrawn. If they lose all their points, they risk losing their licenses. But they can also win back points for good behavior, it said.

An employee at one of China’s large commercial Web portals broadly confirmed the contents of the report.

“Of course this exists. How could it not, in China? It’s there, whether it’s in the control of newspapers by the Party Central Propaganda Department, or whether it’s the Internet Bureau’s control of Web sites,” he told reporter Ding Xiao.

“Our opinion? Of course we are very annoyed by this form of management, but as for complaining about it, whom are you going to complain to in China? To the Party? I don’t think any of the Internet companies are willing to make a fuss about it, because they have a business interest, and they’re not going to go head-to-head with the officials on anything.”

“It was strange to see how compliant Yahoo! and Google became when they entered China. They didn’t give any trouble at all,” he added.

Shanwei crackdown coverage

One of the examples of banned reporting concerned protests against the use of land in the township of Dongzhou, near the southern port city of Shanwei, eastern Guangdong province, the report said.

Dated May 22, 2006, 14:47 p.m. and sent by Chen Hua, deputy director of the Beijing Internet Information, one directive informed news sites in no uncertain terms to stay off the story.

“The leading news media in Guangdong province and the Web sites Nanfang Xinwen, Jinyang, Dayang, and Shenzhen Xinwen are currently covering the case and will publish articles on this subject on 24 and 25 May,” the directive said.

“No news Web sites from other provinces should cover the case or post articles on the subject. Discussion forums, blogs, and comments must not talk about the subject.”

More directives reported

Other examples of directives include orders to display articles positive about the Party and its history prominently, and to de-emphasize those reporting bad news such as suicides or a fuel price hike.

One order required sites to withdraw an investigative report about the Forestry Department director’s suicide on May 11, 2006, while another instituted a ban on posting any report about a pay rise for officials.

Another banned posting any report, except by Xinhua, about changes in the salaries of government officials, ordering Web sites to suppress any notes, messages, or comments on the subject.

Another taboo subject was a news item about a woman student who was beaten to death at the University of Agriculture in Guangzhou on June 22 last year. Student rioting in Zhengzhou also prompted a call for the immediate suppression of comments on the story.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written and translated for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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