China Requires Journalists To Obtain New Press Cards To Practice Profession

July 2, 2009

Journalists and editors at Chinese news organizations are required to possess a government-issued press card in order to legally practice their profession. This requirement differs from more limited forms of press accreditation, such as press badges required for access to certain places or events. Under China's press card system, the government has complete discretion to determine who may or may not legally practice journalism. As detailed below, such a licensing scheme does not conform to international human rights standards for freedom of expression. Every five years journalists already possessing a press card must apply for a new card, at which time the government may deny renewal. 2009 marks five years since the government last renewed press cards in 2004. Press cards currently held by journalists will expire on July 1, 2009. The government has given journalists and editors until June 30 to obtain new cards.

China's Licensing Scheme Does Not Conform to International Standards

China's general press card requirement does not conform to international standards for freedom of expression. Under the Measures for the Administration of Journalist Accreditation Cards, all journalists are required to possess the press card and cardholders must meet government-imposed qualifications including a minimum level of education and adherence to a vague "professional ethics" requirement. International experts have criticized a general licensing requirement for journalists which allows the government discretion to refuse registration and imposes substantive conditions on print media. Such schemes are unnecessary and may be abused, according to a 2003 joint declaration issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. "Individual journalists should not be required to be licensed or to register. There should be no legal restrictions on who may practice journalism," the declaration said, adding that press accreditation is "appropriate only where necessary to provide [journalists] with privileged access to certain places and/or events." Such an interpretation of the appropriateness and scope of accreditation requirements for journalists is consistent with international human rights standards for freedom of expression, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which require that restrictions on freedom of expression be limited to those which are necessary to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. China has signed and committed to ratify the ICCPR.

Chinese officials have used the general press card requirement to harass unlicensed journalists who report on politically sensitive topics. In 2007, for example, police in Nanjing accused Sun Lin (pen name Jie Mu), a reporter for the U.S.-based news Web site Boxun News, of working for an illegal news organization and reporting without an official press card, according to a June 4, 2007, Committee to Protect Journalists article. Sun had reported on property disputes and other politically sensitive topics as well as Boxun's failure to gain accreditation to cover the 2008 Olympic Games and officials had warned him to stop reporting, the article said.

2009 Accreditation Card Renewal

The General Administration on Press and Publication (GAPP) has announced that journalists and editors working for Chinese news organizations must exchange their current press cards for new ones by June 30, 2009, and that the validity of their old cards will expire on July 1, according to the Circular Regarding the 2009 Exchange and Issuance of Press Cards (Circular) issued on January 20, 2009. The renewal will affect approximately 260,000 news personnel, according to a February 11 People's Daily article. GAPP is the administrative agency in charge of regulating the news publishing business, including the licensing of news publications and journalists. Every five years journalists must exchange their cards for new ones, according to Article 16 of the 2005 Measures for the Administration of Journalist Accreditation Cards. According to the Circular, GAPP and local press and publication bureaus under GAPP will be responsible for approving and issuing the cards. The Circular provides that these government agencies and news organizations should "strictly examine and verify the press card applicant's qualifications, be stringent with the scope of distribution of press cards, and firmly expunge those not meeting the requirements from the journalists' ranks."

2009 Campaign to Strengthen Oversight

The new press cards are linked to a broader set of GAPP measures in 2009 to "strengthen oversight of news personnel and news reporting and editing activities," according to GAPP Deputy Director Li Dongdong as reported in a February 13, 2009, China Press and Publication Journal report. These measures include:

  • Creation of a black list. Journalists who "violate laws and regulations" will have their press cards revoked and names placed on a black list of journalists with "bad records."
  • Amendment of the Measures for the Administration of Journalist Accreditation Cards to "strengthen the regulatory system relating to applying for, examining and verifying, and granting press cards."
  • New measures to strengthen oversight over reporting and editing activities to "regulate order in news reporting and curb fake reports."

Chinese Government Justifications for Policy

The Chinese government claims that government licensing and supervision of journalists and editors is needed to prevent corruption and protect journalists. In March 2009, GAPP Director Liu Binjie said a spate of cases involving extortion among "fake" journalists in 2008 had "impacted commercial and social stability" and that "attacking fake journalists" would be a government priority this year, according to a March 4 Jinghua Times report (via Xinhua). The preamble to the Circular claims, as Chinese officials have in the past, that the exchange and issuance of press cards will strengthen the rights of news reporters. Officials this year point to new language printed on the press card as further ensuring journalists' access to government officials. The new language will say: "governments at all levels should facilitate the reporting of journalists who hold this card and provide necessary protection," according to a February 10 China Youth Daily report.

For additional analysis of China's licensing system for journalists under international human rights standards, see The Mechanics of Censorship, A Report on the Regulations for Print Media of the People's Republic of China, issued in September 2007 by Article 19, a human rights organization that promotes freedom of expression.

For more information on the Chinese government and Party's censorship of Chinese media generally, see Section II - Freedom of Expression, in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2008 Annual Report.