Authorities have suspended the comments feature on the Chinese microblog site Weibo, seen here, as a punishment for 'allowing rumors to spread.' (AFP/Mark Ralston)
Authorities have suspended the comments feature on the Chinese microblog site Weibo, seen here, as a punishment for 'allowing rumors to spread.' (AFP/Mark Ralston)

In China, website restrictions after politician’s ouster

New York, April 2, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by Chinese authorities’ recent clampdown on the Internet after rumors circulated about politician Bo Xilai’s dismissal from the Communist Party leadership in Chongqing. In recent days, authorities have shut down several microblog sites and detained and targeted Internet users.

On Friday, the State Internet Information Office and Beijing police shut down 16 websites and detained six individuals for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors,” according to state news agency Xinhua. Authorities did not disclose the identities of the detainees or the charges they faced. In addition, Xinhua reported on Saturday that the commenting features on two major microblog sites, Sina’s Weibo and Tencent’s QQ, had been suspended until April 3 “after they were punished for allowing rumors to spread.”

Journalists reporting eyewitness accounts on their microblog sites in an effort to circumvent media restrictions are also suspected to have been targeted. U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia said last week that Capital Week financial magazine journalist Li Delin had disappeared after he reported seeing tanks in Beijing on his microblog. The Hong Kong-based Apple Daily reported that Li’s editor said the journalist was on vacation, but Li’s colleagues had not been able to reach him since March 23, RFA said.

In another incident, a writer who reported hearing gunshots in Beijing on his microblog was criticized in a commentary titled “[We] Must Firmly Say ‘No’ to Rumor Spreaders,” by the state-run Xinhua agency, according to a translation by the Hong Kong University-based China Media Project. Xinhua called the microblog post “an empty sentence,” concluding, “Fabricating rumors is illegal, and passing rumors on is just as illegal.” The report did not say if the unnamed writer was one of the individuals recently detained by authorities.

“Chinese propaganda officials encourage rumors every time they censor the Internet, because censorship implies they have something to hide,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities should allow websites to operate freely, and immediately release all those detained for discussing censored topics.”

The clampdown followed a series of unconfirmed reports circulating in the wake of Bo’s ouster. Some of the reports alleged his departure was the result of a foiled coup put down by military force in the capital.

Censors in China routinely try to suppress the enormously popular microblogs under the guise of containing rumors, according to CPJ research. Weibo has required real-name registration since March. In the past, authorities have detained Internet users for short periods and even suspended individual accounts.