New Measures Increase Xinhua Control Over Foreign News Sources

October 3, 2006

The Xinhua News Agency (Xinhua) issued on September 10 the Measures for Administering the Release of News and Information in China by Foreign News Agencies (Measures), which prohibit foreign news agencies from distributing news and information in China without government permission. Xinhua is a Chinese government agency directly subordinate to the State Council.

The Xinhua News Agency (Xinhua) issued on September 10 the Measures for Administering the Release of News and Information in China by Foreign News Agencies (Measures), which prohibit foreign news agencies from distributing news and information in China without government permission. Xinhua is a Chinese government agency directly subordinate to the State Council. The Measures require foreign news agencies to be licensed by Xinhua and to submit all articles to a Xinhua-approved agency for distribution. The rules impose content-based restrictions on the information that a foreign news agency may release in China, prohibiting information that the government deems harmful to China's constitutional principles, national unity, national security, social stability, religious policies, ethnic groups, or cultural traditions, as well as "other content banned by Chinese laws and administrative regulations." In addition, the rules grant Xinhua the power to select the news released by foreign news agencies in China and to censor news that violates the content-based restrictions. The rules apply to "news and information in text, photo, graphics, and other forms" and replace the Methods for the Exercise of Administration Over Publication in China of Economic Information by Foreign News Agencies and Their Information Subsidiaries issued in 1996 (1996 Methods), which applied only to financial information.

The Chinese government justified the Measures as necessary to standardize the distribution of information by foreign news agencies and to counter "a near monopoly" over financial information by developed countries. A September 10 Xinhua article (via People's Daily) said the Measures are intended to "promote the dissemination of news and information in a sound and orderly manner." Lu Wei, a Vice President of Xinhua, said that "information flowing from the developed countries to the developing countries is hundreds of times of that flowing from the developing countries to the developed, which makes it hard for developing countries to obtain, transmit, and share information they really need," according to a September 12 Xinhua report (via People's Daily). Premier Wen Jiabao also defended the restrictions, calling criticism of the rules a "misunderstanding" and saying that China "will strive to ensure that the flow of financial and economic information will not meet any obstruction," according to a September 14 South China Morning Post report (subscription required). The Chinese government also said that Xinhua has been regulating foreign news agencies since 1996 and that the new rules do not amount to any change in current policy, according to September 13 (in Chinese) and September 14 Xinhua reports.

The Los Angeles Times conducted a random survey of online comments by Internet users in China about the new rules and found them to be overwhelmingly critical, according to a September 16 report. The report said that the comments accused the government of "turning back the clock, undercutting the media's watchdog role, and keeping its own people in the dark." Spokespersons for the European Union and the United States government expressed concern that the restrictions infringed on freedom of expression and the press, according to a September 11 Associated Press article (via the International Herald Tribune) and a September 12 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required).

The new rules also raise concerns regarding China’s World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments. When China joined the WTO in December 2001, the Chinese government committed to implementing a system in which the relevant regulatory authority for the provision and transfer of financial information would be separate from, and not accountable to, any service suppliers that it regulated. As the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative noted in its 2006 National Trade Estimate, however, the Chinese government has not established such an independent regulator, and Xinhua remains a "major market competitor" of foreign financial information service providers in China. In 2004, the State Council issued its Decision of the State Council Establishing Administration Examination and Approval Matters That Must Remain Subject to Administrative Licensing, which designated Xinhua as the regulator of foreign financial information service providers in China. According to the American Chamber of Commerce's 2006 White Paper, foreign companies have complained that Xinhua has been using its regulatory authority to increase control over the distribution of content, and has been expanding the definition of a wire service so as to establish a monopoly on the dissemination of sports and financial news. The new rules are expected to have a large commercial impact on foreign distributors of financial information, such as Reuters and Bloomberg, who had been allowed to distribute financial information in China under the 1996 Methods, according to a September 15 New York Times article (registration required).

Foreign publishers already are subject to restrictions that apply generally to publishers in China, such as the Regulations on Publication Administration, but the new rules further clarify restrictions specific to foreign news agencies. General publishing regulations require publishers to obtain a license from the government to publish a book, newspaper, or magazine in China, require books, newspapers, and magazines to have unique serial numbers issued by the government, and impose substantive conditions, including registered capital requirements, on publishers. Before the Measures were announced, foreign news agencies were also subject to the 1996 Methods. The 1996 Methods allowed foreign news agencies to distribute financial information directly to customers provided that both the foreign news agency and customer were licensed by Xinhua. The Measures now require distribution through a government-approved agent and cover all types of information. Unlike the 1996 Methods, the Measures also include a list of banned content similar to that found in the Regulations on Publication Administration. While such rules provide only general lists of banned content, in the past authorities have attempted to restrict publishing of Falun Gong materials, Bibles and other Christian literature, news reports relating to outbreaks of dengue fever and SARS, and important political events.

The licensing schemes that the Measures and China's other publishing regulations provide for violate international human rights standards for freedom of the press because they are prior restraints on expression that are not necessary to protect important public or private interests. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to impart "information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers" through any media of their choice. Article 19 of the ICCPR provides that such right may be subject to certain restrictions, but only to those prescribed by law and necessary for protecting the rights and reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. The UN Human Rights Committee ruled in March 2000, that a licensing scheme in Belarus similar to China's violated Article 19 because the government of Belarus had failed to show how the licensing requirements were necessary to protect any of the legitimate purposes set forth in Article 19. In 2003, 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, issued a joint declaration saying that licensing schemes are unnecessary and subject to abuse.

The Chinese government remains concerned that increased access to foreign sources of information will dilute the Communist Party's control over public opinion. The government bans the general distribution of foreign newspapers, news magazines, and television programs. The Chinese government has halted plans to allow foreign newspapers to print in China because of concerns raised by the recent "color revolutions" in former Soviet republics. In October 2004, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued regulations prohibiting joint ventures from producing programs on "political news." Liu Yunshan, director of the Central Propaganda Department, has called on Party propagandists to prevent "Western enemy forces" from using their "economic and technical superiority to carry out ideological infiltration and cultural expansion" in order to "Westernize and divide" China. The government jams programming offered by the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation. China has also enacted regulations that restrict private satellite dish ownership and only permit foreign television news from broadcasters that are "friendly" to China and that offer their programs through government-controlled channels. In addition, since May 2005, the Chinese government has prevented its citizens in China from accessing the CECC Web site. For more on China's attempts to control access to foreign sources of information, see Section V(a), Special Focus for 2006: Freedom of Expression, of the Commission's 2006 Annual Report.