China issues decree on government transparencyNew rules contain significant limitations and do not ease state’s control of the press

New York, April 24, 2007—China’s State Council today publicized a decree signed by Premier Wen Jiabao to boost the transparency of government offices. But the new rules make broad exceptions for information deemed by authorities to threaten national security, social stability, public safety, and economic security.

“If this order improves citizens’ access to official information in China, it will be a positive step,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But it is also clear that these rules will not ease state control over the media, and that they contain significant exceptions that could be used to suppress important public information.”

The legislation, which will go into effect on May 1, 2008, requires government offices at the county, city, and neighborhood levels to use official Web sites, press conferences and other forms of communication to release public information.

The decree orders the public disclosure of official information regarding public health, food safety, environmental issues, government responses to emergencies, land-use reports, and compensation to residents evicted from their land. The order would establish the right of citizens to petition the government for release of information, altering a policy of selected disclosure by authorities.

But the ordinance also requires that information regarding national regulations first be submitted to higher authorities for approval, and that government offices should not release any information regarding state secrets, or “incomplete” information that could “disturb social order.”

China’s state secrets law, passed in 1988, has an exceptionally broad scope, and includes information on major policy decisions, national defense, diplomatic activities, national economic and social development, science and technology, investigations into criminal offenses, and anything else determined to be a secret by the Department for Protection of State Secrets. The law has been used to jail journalists for their reporting.

The media in China are subject to ideological oversight by the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, and to administrative restrictions through various government offices. The new rules are unlikely to affect the authority of these organizations to decide the limits of acceptable reporting and commentary.