China slaps ban on original online news

Internet, mobile companies ordered to carry only reports provided by govt-controlled media: Report

BEIJING • China's top Internet regulator has ordered major online companies including Sina and Tencent to stop original news reporting, the latest effort by the government to tighten its grip over the country's Web and information industries.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) imposed the ban on several major news portals, including Sohu and NetEase, Chinese media reported in identically worded articles citing an unidentified official from the agency's Beijing office.

The companies have "seriously violated" Internet regulations by carrying plenty of news content obtained through original reporting, causing "huge negative effects", according to a report that appeared in The Paper on Sunday.

The sweeping ban gives the authorities near-absolute control over online news and political discourse, in keeping with a broader crackdown on information increasingly distributed over the Web and mobile devices.

The agency instructed the operators of mobile and online news services to dismantle "current-affairs news" operations on Friday, after earlier calling a halt to such activity at Tencent, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Like its peers, Asia's largest Internet company had developed a news operation and grown its team.

Henceforth, they and other services can carry only reports provided by government-controlled print or online media, the sources said, asking not to be identified because the issue is politically sensitive.

The sweeping ban gives the authorities near-absolute control over online news and political discourse, in keeping with a broader crackdown on information increasingly distributed over the Web and mobile devices.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed that Chinese media must serve the interests of the ruling Communist Party.

The regulator will slap financial penalties on such sites, the Paper cited the official as saying. A representative of Sohu declined to comment on the report. Tencent, Sina and NetEase did not respond to messages and phone calls seeking comment. The cyberspace administration has yet to respond to a faxed request for comment.

Online news services have always operated in a regulatory grey area. They are not authorised to provide original content and technically are not allowed to hire reporters or editors. Still, outlets have recently published investigative stories on official corruption cases, and covered sensitive social issues from demonstrations to human rights.

For instance, NetEase ran a feature in April after the party announced an investigation into a senior Hebei provincial official, Zhang Yue. The story was later removed from the Internet.

"Current-affairs news" is a broad term in China and encompasses all news and commentary related to politics, economics, military, foreign affairs and social issues, according to the draft version of China's online information law. The amended draft of the regulation is currently seeking public feedback on the CAC's official website.

In recent months, Chinese authorities have held discussions with Internet providers on a pilot project intended to pave the way for the government to start taking board seats and stakes of at least 1 per cent in the companies. In return, they would get a licence to provide news on a daily basis.

The change in the guidelines on original reporting also comes weeks after China replaced its chief Internet regulator. Mr Xu Lin, a former Shanghai propaganda chief who worked briefly with President Xi during his half-year stint as Shanghai party boss in 2007, succeeded Mr Lu Wei in June as head of the cyberspace administration.

The regulator has since tightened its grip on online news reports, such as by warning news or social network websites against publishing news without proper verification.

In another sign that the government is exerting influence over information, the publishers of a private purchasing managers index suspended that popular gauge without explanation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'China slaps ban on original online news'. Print Edition | Subscribe