China is tightening its rules on reporting, insisting that media outlets don’t report on stories that appear in social media until they’ve been verified. The move comes as the Communist Party continues a wide-ranging crackdown on dissidents and sources of information critical of the government.
According to a statement posted by the General Administration of Press and Publications, “Unverified reports are on an upward trend, and to a certain extent that has undermined the government's image, disrupted the information order, reduced the credibility of the media and brought a strong social response,” AP noted.
The government has found it increasingly difficult to control information with the rapid growth in popularity of so-called microblogs. In July, for example, rumors were quick to spread on social media over the true seriousness of a deadly train collision that claimed dozens of lives. In addition to speculation that the death toll might have been much higher than officials reported, news quickly circulated around blogs of one of the train carriages involved in the wreck being buried, just hours after the crash.
“Netizens argued that it was buried to destroy evidence – and some seem to believe that it contained bodies in order to reduce the official death count,” The Diplomat’s David Cohen reported at the time. “So far, official responses that it was done to safeguard Chinese technical secrets have persuaded few. An informal poll on the Sina microblog service has found that less than 2 percent of about 63,000 respondents credited official explanations.”
As AP notes, the rules bar journalists and media outlets from reporting information taken from the Internet or cell phones without firsthand verification. “Violators may be barred from working in media for five years, and serious infractions may lead to criminal charges,” it adds.
On the surface, such rules seem similar to those in many other, democratic nations. However, they mark a potentially significant departure for China, and critics wonder both about the timing and also the potential application of such rules at a time when dissidents are being detained or threatened.
“These restrictions are more evidence that the Party feels they have lost or are losing control of the propaganda environment, and are starting to panic about it,” says Kelley Currie, a China specialist with Washington-based Project 2049. “They have good reason to be, with Weibo and the proliferation of smart phones proving to be a powerful combination that allows people to instantly share video of and commentary on everything from an ‘urban management’ thug beating up a street vendor to exposes of restaurants using ‘gutter oil.’”
But Kelley argues that such a reflexive response on the part of the government to the challenge posed by social media is both dated and, perhaps, ultimately futile.
“It’s one of those vestiges of Marxist thinking in the Party that still exerts a powerful hold. In part because of the market reforms the Party introduced to save its own skin 30 years ago, Chinese society is democratizing the sources of information available about every topic of interest to the Chinese people, and we are seeing the state reach the effective limits of its ability to manage the situation,” she says.
“The natural response of the party state in this situation is to try to force its way back into control. The question is whether they can do that under the present circumstances, which are so altered from previous situations. I think it’s an open question, and tend to lean on the side of freedom seeking behavior as winning out in the end.”