Ever broader restrictions handed down for China’s reporters

Yet another set of rules restricting the work of journalists in China takes the concept of “overbroad” to new heights. According to guidelines made public Tuesday by the official state news agency Xinhua, the new rules cover various “information, materials, and news products that journalists may deal with during their work, including state secrets, commercial secrets, and unpublicized information.”

Getting jailed for revealing state secrets is nothing new in China, and many other countries for that matter–although it’s a pretty good definition of a journalist’s job, or at least a large part of it. Other infractions, like “inciting separatism,” “inciting subversion,” and “endangering state security” are often used in China and around the world. But getting jailed for reporting on “unpublicized information” poses a particularly vague and unnerving threat for journalists.

Xinhua carried no explanation of the terms of the new provisions, so Chinese journalists have just become even more vulnerable to ill-defined crimes laid down by the State Administration of Press Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. (It is not clear if the rules apply to international journalists working in China.)

As we noted in a statement on June 18, China’s media regulating agency is on a mission to suppress “criticism of any subject deemed harmful by the government of President Xi Jinping to its own interests.” The government had just announced that month that reporters were not allowed to report anything, even on their own blogs and social media sites, that had not been approved by an editor at their news organization. The announcement was aimed at heading off enterprising–and increasingly frustrated–reporters who would often release directly to their own readers information that had not survived their publications’ editing and censorship processes.

Tuesday’s announcement by Xinhua drove home even harder the intent to stifle reporters: “Reporters, editors and anchormen should not disseminate state secrets in any form via any media and they should not mention such information in their private exchanges or letters.”

In June we said the government was aiming to do nothing less than undermine the watchdog role of the media by threatening to punish any journalist or media organization reporting news not approved by the government. The new rules are a continuation of that crackdown.

In the years before the Xi government, many Chinese journalists would tell me that, despite the restrictions and China’s harsh record of jailing reporters, they felt they were working in a “golden age” of Chinese journalism. Their rationale was that, if they played the system wisely with editors who could walk the fine line between offending censors and meeting the public’s increasing expectations for reliable, revealing news, they could robustly pursue the craft of journalism. But the stream of restrictive rules handed down since the current government came to power is aimed at closing as many of those loopholes as possible. Expect more to come.