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China bans Internet companies from reporting news, tightens grip on media

For years, the narrative about China in the West has been that the country was slowly but steadily moving towards more free and open reporting. In some ways, this narrative has always been hopeful rather than factual — China currently operates the most sophisticated online censorship model in the world and imprisons more journalists and cyber-dissidents than any other nation, according to a 2014 report by Amnesty International. Still, citizens have used services like Sina Weibo to report on current events around China in ways that would have been impossible 20 years ago.

Today, the Chinese government took draconian steps to end such reports and prevent Internet companies from reporting news at all. Bloomberg reports that China has banned Internet companies like Sina Corp and Tencent Corp from any original news reporting whatsoever. Sina owns Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, while Tencent owns its own microblogging service, as well as games like League of Legends, QQ Instant Messenger, and WeChat. Both companies are Internet giants in China — imagine if the US government banned Facebook and Twitter from reporting any news save that issued by state media sources and you’ve got an idea of the scope of the situation.

A report issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China and carried by The Paper states that these sites and others were shut down due to violations of Article XVI of the Provisions on the Administration of Internet News Information Services. The violations appear related to the self-publication of news and other stories. The government notes that it will enforce sanctions and penalties and that these services will only be allowed to carry government-approved content thereafter. (Anyone who speaks Chinese better than Google Translate is welcome to provide an alternative translation).

There’s no word on which stories triggered the crackdown or where the stories originated from. The sweeping ban would seem to indicate that either multiple companies carried stories that the Chinese government disliked, or that this was part of a general move to concentrate media reporting and further eliminate dissidence. President Xi Jinping has led widespread efforts to crack down on internal corruption within the Communist Party, attacking it at both the local and national level and initiating significant cases against high-ranking party officials. He has also defended the supremacy of the Communist Party within China. A highly confidential internal Chinese document, leaked in 2012, claimed that there were seven Western values that were seen as highly dangerous and therefore forbidden: Constitutional democracy, civil society, criticism of past government errors, an independent media, neo-liberalism, questioning Chinese economic reform, and the idea of universal human rights.

This crackdown on news outlets could be a sign that Xi Jinping is tightening his grip on the government and Internet ahead of next year’s congress. The Chinese government is in talks with various Internet service providers and news services to take seats on their boards and a stake of at least 1% in the companies themselves, Bloomberg reports. In return for allowing this, the companies would then be allowed to report on daily news.

While some Chinese citizens continue to find ways to evade the Great Firewall, this has been a continually evolving process. Thanks to deep packet inspection, simply using a service like Tor or a VPN is often no longer enough. There are still proxy services and other methods of seeing content the Chinese government would prefer to keep hidden, but a report in 2015 suggested that the government had found unpatched exploits in popular Web privacy tools that allowed them to spy on connections once believed to be secret.

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