Chinese Authorities Issue Regulations To Control Journalists and "Unverified Reports"

May 8, 2012

In mid-October 2011, the Chinese government released regulations that aim to control journalists' use of "unverified information" and to regulate news agencies' review procedures. The regulations prohibit Chinese journalists from directly including "unverified information" obtained from the Internet or mobile text messages in their reporting. In addition, the regulations require that news agencies improve the system of accountability for "fake" or "false" news reports, terms that are not defined in the regulations. The October 2011 announcement followed official calls to restrict news reporting and to limit so-called "rumors" in the media.

On October 19, 2011, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), an administrative agency that controls the regulation and the distribution of news in print and Internet publications, issued the Several Provisions To Prevent and Guard Against False Reporting (Provisions), which entered into effect on the same day. The Provisions prohibit journalists from using information from the Internet or mobile phones in their reporting that authorities deem "unverified," and the Provisions require that news agencies improve accountability mechanisms to safeguard against "false" reporting. The Provisions also state penalties applicable to journalists and news agencies that publish "false" information that authorities deem to be harmful to national or public interests or that authorities decide may bring about "adverse social impacts."

Official Rationale Behind New Regulations

In November 2011, official state-run media organizations reported on justifications behind the release of the Provisions, citing reasons such as to curb what they described as "false news reports," to bolster the credibility of Chinese news organizations, and to curb the influence of "new" media (People's Daily, 11 November 11; Xinhua, 10 November 11). According to a November 10, 2011, Xinhua article, the Provisions seek to "increas[e] the credibility of Chinese news organizations." According to a November 18, 2011 People's Daily Online article (in Chinese), Professor Lei Yuejie of the Communication Research Institute at the Communication University of China writes that the background and rationale behind the provisions is twofold: first, the Provisions aim to follow the July 2011 movement set out by the Central Propaganda Department in "Moving at the Grassroots, Transitioning Work Styles, and Reforming Writing Styles" (zou jiceng, zhuan zuofeng, gai wenfeng)—that aims to place greater emphasis on handling propaganda work and leveraging public opinion. Second, the Provisions aim to check the influence of new media resources, including the Internet and mobile devices. According to Lei, the Provisions also seek to curb the "upward trend" of inaccurate news reporting by traditional news media outlets. (The article did not cite statistical evidence demonstrating the "upward trend.")

News organizations outside of mainland China, however, have reported that journalists within mainland China have raised concerns that the Provisions will limit news gathering and investigative reporting. For example, a November 11, 2012, South China Morning Post article reports that some mainland Chinese journalists have decried the regulations as "another move to step up censorship" and that one Oriental Morning Post (Dongfang Zaobao) journalist claimed the regulations may endanger cross-regional reporting—which refers to a publication in one region reporting on sensitive events in another province to avoid drawing the ire of local leaders responsible for managing its publication.

The announcement of the Provisions apparently reflects a growing concern by Chinese authorities over the popularity of microblogging Web sites—and the issue of spreading online rumors. According to a November 11, 2011, New York Times article, "[Chinese] authorities appear particularly concerned about fast-spreading rumors of corruption or abuse of authority by government officials, a frequent topic on the Twitter-like microblogs." In recent months, Chinese officials and official state-run media have consistently warned the public about the dangers of online rumors. According to a November 3, 2011, People's Daily editorial, the sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party advocated for collective efforts to dispel online rumors in October 2011. According to a December 1, 2011, article in the People's Daily, the official news media of the Communist Party, Internet rumors are "online psychological drugs" that are "no less harmful than gambling, pornography and drugs." A November 28, 2011, Xinhua article declared that online rumors were even more dangerous than heroin or cocaine, since Internet rumors can "poison the social environment and influence social order."

Notice on the Issuance of "Several Provisions To Prevent and Guard Against False Reporting"

The Provisions require that journalists provide additional sources for news reporting and be subject to stricter controls in news gathering. The Provisions do not define "false" news reports but state that journalists must adhere to the principle of "seeking truth from facts" and must not "deliberately distort the truth." The Provisions' use of vague and undefined terms—including "true," "accurate," and "objective"—raise concern that Chinese officials and media organizations may interpret these terms broadly to target journalists that report on topics authorities deem to be politically sensitive.

The Provisions address, in part, the following topics and requirements:

  • The regulations require that journalists "use authoritative sources, news, or verifiable facts; [and] must not compile and distribute news based on unverified rumors and other non-first hand materials." (Article 1(4))
  • The regulations require journalists to produce at least two sources for any news reports that involve criticism and to ensure that news reports are “true, objective, and accurate." (Article 1(5))
  • The regulations require that "News agencies must strictly regulate news gathering processes, establishing, and improving the review system for publications and broadcasts..." (Article 2(1))
  • The regulations require that news agencies strictly employ an open system for receiving publicly available documents and Internet information and not directly use unverified information and mobile phone messages. (Article 2(3))
  • The regulations require that news agencies establish a sound mechanism for receiving public reports, complaints, inspections, disposal procedures, and feedback. (Article 3(1))
  • The regulations require that news agencies improve their systems of accountability for "fake" (xujia) or "false" (shishi) reports. (Article 3(3))
  • The regulations state that journalists who "compile and distribute false information that is harmful to national or public interests" and those that "publish inaccurate reports with adverse social impacts" shall be given a warning, in accordance with existing laws and regulations. If "the circumstances are serious," the journalist may not be able to engage in news editing or production for five years; if the infringement is criminal, the journalist may be held criminally responsible and may not be able to engage in news editing or production permanently. (Article 4(2))

Provisions Governing Journalists Raise Concerns over Internationally Recognized Protections

The additional state regulation and control over journalists reflected in the Provisions, including vague requirements against posting what officials deem to be "false" information or "inaccurate" information, raise concerns over how Chinese authorities may interpret these restrictions to de-license or criminally prosecute journalists exercising their fundamental rights under international human rights standards. The Provisions may restrict the rights of journalists to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 in both the ICCPR, which China signed and has committed to ratify, and the UDHR, provide a general right to "impart information and ideas through any media." Despite international human rights standards, Chinese authorities have a well-documented track record of censoring politically sensitive news reporting that should be protected under international law.

While governments may, under Article 19, impose limited restrictions on free expression—if such restrictions are for the purpose of protecting the rights and reputations of others, national security or public order, or public health and morals—Article 19 does not allow Chinese officials to restrict expression for the purpose of preventing Chinese citizens from imparting information that the Chinese government or Communist Party deem to be politically sensitive for other reasons. The United Nations Human Rights Council stated in its resolution 12/16 (available on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Web site) that such restrictions should never be applied to discussion of certain sensitive topics: "Government policies and political debate; reporting on human rights, Government activities and corruption in Government; engaging in election campaigns, peaceful demonstrations or political activities, including for peace or democracy; and expression of opinion and dissent, religion or belief, including by persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups." The United Nations Human Rights Council, in the same resolution, called on states to review procedures, practices and legislation to ensure that any limitations are necessary for "the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals."

In recent years, Chinese officials have commented publicly on the role of independent news reporting, particularly online news reporting, as official concerns have grown over unregulated news reporting on China's fast-growing Internet. In a February 22, 2010, People's Daily interview, an unnamed GAPP official, noting concern about the Internet's role in disseminating news, emphasized legal requirements preventing commercial Web sites and unlicensed "Internet journalists" from independently reporting news on the Internet. The official said that commercial Web sites are not news organizations and thus "are not qualified to legally report or originally issue news." The official said that the only news Web sites that were allowed to originally report news were "traditional media" already licensed by the government and authorized to apply for press cards for their journalists (see Articles 4 and 12 of the Measures for Administration of News Reporter Cards). The official cited as examples the news Web sites of traditional media such as (of the Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily) and (of the central government's news agency).

The Provisions follow other existing official limitations and restrictions on journalists and news editors. Restrictions on freedom of the press in China include the following: (1) censorship directives; (2) requirements that all journalists apply with the government for a license to practice their profession and that permit punishment for not having a license; (3) having to abide by an ethical code that requires loyalty to the Party; and (4) having to pass a qualification exam that includes ideological requirements. The October 2011 Provisions may also further signal a continuing worsening situation for journalists in China. According to Reporters Without Borders' 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index, press freedoms and freedom of information declined considerably in 2011: "China, which has more journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents in prison than any other country, stepped up its censorship and propaganda in 2011 and tightened its control of the Internet..."

For additional information on conditions for journalists in China, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2011 Annual Report.