China Restricts Reporting on Internet Filtering Plan, Iran Protests, Other Topics

August 6, 2009

Chinese propaganda officials often respond to events deemed politically sensitive with directives limiting domestic media coverage and online public discussion. In recent months, Chinese officials reportedly issued a number of directives restricting press coverage of politically sensitive topics. Among these were two June 2009 directives, one in response to public criticism of a government plan to require the "pre-installation" of filtering software on all computers sold in China, and another in response to protests in Iran following that country's June 12 presidential election. These and other directives violate international standards for freedom of expression because they have no clear basis in law and are intended to shield the government and Party from criticism.

Propaganda officials issued two separate directives in June 2009 ordering newspaper editors, journalists, and Web sites to avoid criticism of the government's decision to require "pre-installation" of filtering software on all computers sold in China after July 1 and to downplay coverage of protests in Iran following the contested June 12 presidential election, according to a June 11 Radio France Internationale (RFI) article (in Chinese) and a June 20 South China Morning Post (SCMP) article (subscription required).

Directive Relating to Filtering Software Plan

The RFI article said that the Party's Central Propaganda Department issued the directive concerning the filtering software on June 10. According to RFI, the notice ordered all media not to "publish discussion questioning or criticizing" the government's plan, but instead to "expand positive guidance." It said media could organize experts and parents to make statements in support of the plan. The notice also ordered all media to remove comments attacking the plan from discussion spaces on their Web sites, according to the RFI article. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) made the plan public on June 9, posting a circular on its Web site requiring all computers sold in China after July 1 to be packaged with a single brand of government-approved "pre-installed" filtering software called "Green Dam-Youth Escort." Officials said the purpose was to protect young people from pornography and violence, but citizens raised concern that the policy would threaten privacy and free expression and was overly broad. Citizens also questioned the legality and transparency of the government's selection of the companies providing the software. On June 30, 2009, the MIIT announced it was delaying implementation of the plan.

Media outlets under the direct control of the Communist Party and central government issued articles supporting the plan after the release of the directive. A June 11 People's Daily article (in Chinese), for example, featured the responses of two experts on youth psychology and youth Internet usage supporting the plan during an online chat with Internet users. A June 12 Xinhua article (in Chinese) defended the plan by pointing out measures regulating Internet content in the United States, Japan, and Taiwan. Other domestic media, however, continued to criticize the policy. A June 11 editorial in the China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, questioned the obligatory nature of the software and its potential threat to freedom of expression, while a June 22 Chinese-language article in Caijing, a more independent financial magazine, said the move lacked "sufficient moral and legal ground."

Directive Relating to Protests Following Iran Presidential Election

The SCMP article said that propaganda officials issued the notice concerning the Iranian election protests on June 19. According to the SCMP, the notice banned editors and columnists from "criticising or commenting on the Iranian government's latest measures to control the disorder." The notice also prohibited Web site administrators from highlighting reports, presenting special pages, or conducting interviews in connection with the Iranian protests. Only reports from Xinhua and People's Daily were allowed to be published, according to the article. A June 27 Washington Post article reported that tens of thousands of comments regarding Iran were deleted in the weeks following the June 19 notice, and only comments supporting the Chinese government's acknowledgement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory were allowed to remain. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China observed that Party-controlled media alleged "Western" involvement in the protests and "Western" support for the opposition movement. A June 24 article in the Guangming Daily said that "Western" powers "fueled the flames" of the protests in Iran, while a June 28 article in the Global Times characterized the "West" as hoping for a "color revolution" to occur in Iran.

In recent months, Chinese officials reportedly issued a number of other directives restricting press coverage of politically sensitive topics.

  • In March, Internet supervision departments issued an internal notice prohibiting Web sites from reporting on or commenting on an environmental impact report relating to the Guangdong Nansha oil refinery and petrochemical project, according to a March 18 China Digital Times report.
  • In March, the Central Propaganda Department banned domestic media from republishing or reporting on an article on China's U.S. stock holdings and ordered Web sites to remove the article, according to a March 9 Ming Pao report (via Open Source Center, subscription required). The article was originally published by a Shanghai newspaper and included comments from an academic questioning China's use of foreign exchange reserves to invest in stock. The ban occurred during the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
  • In February, propaganda officials in Beijing ordered Web sites to delete blogs and discussion groups about a fire at a hotel under construction on the grounds of China Central Television's headquarters. The officials also ordered Chinese media not to publish photos, videos, or in-depth reports about the fire, and to run only official stories issued by Xinhua instead of their own reports.

The directives from propaganda officials in China effectively restrict freedom of expression and have no clear legal basis. Article 19 in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed and has committed to ratify, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), provide "everyone" with a general right to freedom of expression. Both the ICCPR (Article 19, paragraph 3), and the UDHR (Article 29) allow officials to limit this right, but only if such restrictions are "provided by law" (ICCPR), or "determined by law" (UDHR), and "necessary" for (ICCPR), or "solely for the purpose of" (UDHR), respecting the rights or reputations of others or protecting national security, public order, public health or morals, or the general welfare. The propaganda directives violate the ICCPR and UDHR in at least two respects. First, officials impose the restrictions to further government policies and shield the Party from criticism, among other politically motivated reasons, rather than to respect or protect one of the rights or interests set forth in the ICCPR or UDHR. Second, the directives have no clear basis in law. The directives do not meet the international human rights requirement that they be "provided by law" or "determined by law" in part because they are issued by a Party entity rather than according to China's Legislation Law, which governs the issuance of laws, regulations, and other legally-binding rules by governmental entities in China.

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