Reporters Without Borders roundly condemns the prior censorship that the propaganda ministry imposed on domestic media coverage of the news conference that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao gave on 14 March, on the last day the annual National People’s Congress.
The organization is also very worried by the introduction of a system for identifying bloggers (实名制), the increased cooperation by the companies Sina and Baidu in monitoring Internet users (described in a report in the official periodical Frontline), and the adoption of a new detention law on the last day of the congress.
“What with draconian directives on how the media should cover the news, increased online censorship and the legalization of secret detention, the Chinese government is attacking freedom of information from all sides,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The new restrictions are the complete opposite of what the public wants and even Prime Minister Wen had indicated this.
“The big Internet companies that are helping the authorities to monitor and control the Internet are just as responsible as the government for the cyber-censorship. We urge the companies that own micro-blogging services such as Tencent, Sina and Baidu to assume their responsibility and not turn them into government surveillance tools.”
All the news media that were planning to cover the prime minister’s news conference received a directive from the propaganda ministry the day before ordering them to carry only the reports provided by the official news agency Xinhua and not to add any comments. The news conference concluded the annual National People’s Congress that began on 5 March.
On the final day, the congress approved an amendment to the criminal procedure law allowing the authorities to detain persons suspected of crimes “endangering national security” in a secret location for up to six months without bringing any formal charges. The police had already been making broad use of “house arrest” as way to detain people in their homes or other locations in a completely illegal manner.
Under other amendments to the same law, the police are supposed to notify relatives within 24 hours when someone is arrested, but are not required to say why or where they are being held. The amendments also ban using information obtained under torture as evidence, require that video recordings be made of interrogation sessions, and give lawyers the right to attend if the suspect is facing a possible sentence of 10 years or more.
Xiong Wei, a researcher specializing in legislation, launched a campaign on the Sina Weibo micro-blogging site called for the vote on the amendments to be postponed. His campaign message was forwarded 18,000 times before being deleted on 12 March.
Cooperation between China’s leading Internet companies and the government has intensified since the end of 2011. According to a report published recently under the propaganda ministry’s aegis by the Communist Party periodical Frontline (前线), nine Beijing-based Internet companies including Sina and Baidu have created internal grass-roots party committees with the aim of “purifying” online content by identifying and denying “false rumours.”
The report urged other website owners to create similar committees and said the government and party have set aside special funds for this purpose.
A recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States highlighted the effectiveness of the censorship of social networks in China, especially in sensitive regions. Nearly half of the messages posted on social networks in Tibet are deleted, compared with about 10 per cent in Beijing and Shanghai.
Both online censorship and disappearances have increased in 2011. Around 100 journalists and netizens are currently detained. Of those who have been able to talk about their detention, many have said they were tortured or mistreated.
End of micro-blogging anonymity
Under the new regulations for micro-blogging sites that took effect in Beijing today, users have to provide their real name and phone number to register. If those who are already registered do not provide the required information, they will be unable to continue blogging. According to Reuters, 19 million of Sina Weibo’s 300 million members have so far registered under their real identity.
The cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou are expected to follow Beijing’s example and impose similar user rules soon. This initiative is particularly worrying as it will almost certainly lead to self-censorship by users. Until now, China’s micro-blogging sites have been a source of alternative news and views in a country where the media are closely controlled by the authorities.
China is ranked 174th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is on the list of “Enemies of the Internet” that Reporters Without Borders released this week.