Communist Party Seeks To Restrict Already Limited Critical Media Reports

October 18, 2010

The Communist Party reportedly has issued an order that could further diminish Chinese newspapers' already limited space to write stories critical of local-level officials. The order, directed at market-oriented "metropolitan" newspapers, which have developed reputations for more independent reporting, would prevent these newspapers from publishing "negative" stories about other localities, a practice known as yidi jiandu (translated into English as "outside area supervision" or "extra-territorial supervision"). Though officials have sought to curb this practice in recent years, Chinese journalists have engaged in yidi jiandu in part to counter local officials' attempts to bar media within their jurisdiction from reporting "negative" stories about the locality.

The Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department reportedly has sent an order, effective July 1, 2010, to numerous "metropolitan" (dushi) newspapers barring them from publishing "negative" stories about incidents in other geographic areas within China or carrying stories published by newspapers based in other areas, according to a July 15 report in the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao (via Yahoo! Hong Kong). In contrast to traditional media more closely aligned with the Party and government, "metropolitan" newspapers are more commercially oriented and are known for their investigative reports and entertainment stories. (See discussion of "metropolitan" newspapers on the Baidu Web site.) According to Ming Pao, the "metropolitan" newspapers also were ordered to limit domestic and international reports to stories written by the paper's own reporters or written by Xinhua, the central government's news agency. The Ming Pao report said the order is aimed at "news agency alliances" in which newspapers from different areas swap stories in order to get around local controls on reporting. Under this practice, a local newspaper prevented by local officials from reporting a story will pass along that story to a newspaper based outside the geographic area. The outside newspaper, which faces less pressure to refrain from reporting on developments in other areas, may then publish the story. The order effectively prevents both the outside-area newspaper from publishing the story in the first instance and the local newspaper from reprinting the story once it is published. The order also prohibits "negative" reports about public security officials.

The order, if followed and enforced, would enhance both local officials' control over local stories and central authorities' control over international and other domestic coverage. Ming Pao said the order had been confirmed by reporters and editors at newspapers in Hunan province, Guangdong province, and Beijing. Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that advocates for press freedom, also reported the order on July 21.

Both Ming Pao and Reporters Without Borders reported that the order may have been a response to the March 1, 2010, editorial jointly published by 13 metropolitan newspapers calling on delegates to the annual meeting of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to demand a timetable for reform of China's household registration (hukou) system. The editorial's publication was reportedly followed by censors' removing it from the Internet, the forced resignation of one of its authors, and the Central Propaganda Department's labeling it an inappropriate act. Ming Pao reported that the editorial angered high-level officials who attributed the editorial to the "news agency alliance" among metropolitan newspapers.

Officials in the past have attempted to curb yidi jiandu. In June 2005, the Party Central Committee issued a document requiring a newspaper to obtain the approval of local Party officials in the targeted area before publishing a "critical outside area article." In 2008, authorities in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region suspended publication of a newspaper under its jurisdiction for a critical report the paper had written about a branch of the Agricultural Bank of China located in Hunan province. The newspaper said the punishment was for violating a ban on "outside area" reporting. More recently, Party propaganda officials attempted to bar journalists from outside Qinghai province from covering a large earthquake that struck the region in April 2010.

The Central Propaganda Department order is inconsistent with China's pledge to "give full play to the role of...the news media in supervising state organs and civil servants," which is set forth in the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010). China's Constitution also provides for freedom of the press (Article 35) and the right to criticize officials (Article 41).

For more information on censorship of the news media in China, see Section II―Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.