Press Freedom Group Voices Concern About China’s New Social Media Restrictions

January 28, 2021 Updated: January 28, 2021

A trade union organization that seeks to defend press freedom on Jan. 28 expressed concern about two rules recently issued by the Chinese regime about social media content.

“The IFJ expresses grave concern over Beijing’s increasing grip on the press and stresses that a vibrant society in which citizens can express opinions freely is key to development and progress,” the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in a statement.

China’s National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) announced on Jan. 19 new regulations on how regional authorities should conduct the annual review of journalists’ accreditation, which is taking place through March 19.

In particular, authorities will look into whether journalists have engaged in “self-media” on Chinese social media such as Weibo and WeChat, or have distributed work-related information, “without authorization.” It’s unclear which entity would grant such authorization.

Journalists found in violation of these rules will be at risk of being punished or having their credentials suspended.

The NPPA said that the new regulations were needed to build a team of journalists who are “politically strong” and “capable of winning battles.”

On Jan. 22, China’s cyberspace watchdog, Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), updated its existing regulations for public social media accounts. The new regulations ban “fabricating information,” “tagging false sources,” and “distorting the truth” and “misleading the public.” The updated regulations will come into effect on Feb. 22.

Users found in violation will have their accounts limited, terminated, or placed on a blacklist. Social media companies are also obligated to alert authorities about activities in violation of the rules.

An unnamed CAC official told Chinese state-run media Xinhua that one of the reasons for updating the regulations was that some “self-media” had “fabricated and disseminated online rumors” during the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the pandemic, citizen journalists and ordinary people have been punished by local police for disseminating information about China’s outbreaks on the internet.

Meanwhile, journalists in China criticized the NPPA regulations as another form of censorship.

“Many reporters can’t write what they want in the mainstream media, so they post it to Weibo and WeChat instead,” Beijing-based journalist Wang Liang recently told Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Wang added: “Journalists belong to a profession that has a little more of a voice than ordinary people do in China, so they are placing tight controls not just on journalists’ work, but on their private speech as well.”

Wang Aizhong, a rights activist based in southern China’s Guangzhou city, told RFA the NPPA regulations gave the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) more control over what information would be able to reach the public.

The new rules come amid a new wave of COVID-19 infections across China, caused by the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus. Outbreaks have occurred in multiple provinces and cities, including Hebei Province, Beijing, and Shanghai.

It remains to be seen whether the Chinese regime will use the new rules against journalists who report on COVID-19 in China.

In December 2020, the Chinese regime sentenced Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer who became a citizen journalist, to four years in prison after being convicted of  “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” over her reporting in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s outbreak last year.

Zhang used her WeChat, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to post about the Wuhan outbreak.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer