China Signals Further Clampdown on Citizen Journalism With License Scheme

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Originally published by Radio Free Asia on February 2, 2021

China’s internet regulator has announced a crackdown on citizen journalism around the country, banning anyone from posting news-related information online without a license.

The move was announced by Zhuang Rongwen, deputy director of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s central propaganda department, during a Jan. 29 online conference on promoting “orderly communications” on all online platforms, the Cyberspace Administration said in a statement on its official website.

“We must control the source of online texts, and resolutely close any loopholes,” Zhuang told the conference. “The standardized management of citizen journalism should be a priority, with increased punishments for offenders and actual teeth for regulators.”

Changes to media regulations three years ago required any organization publishing news or current affairs-related content to hold a license from the country’s media regulator, and the focus on citizen journalism will extend the full implementation of that rule to include both regular citizens and journalists posting on their private accounts to evade censorship.

The move comes months after authorities detained and jailed a number of people for reporting unofficially on the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic in the central city of Wuhan in the early months of 2020.

Independent scholar Fang Liang said the move simply means even tighter CCP control over online speech.

“They are gradually getting control of all channels through which people could get information,” Fang said. “They want to have actual control over people’s right to comment on current affairs and share information.”

“The aim is to make it so that the general public will only be able to access a one-way flow of information from official channels,” he said.

Accounts recently warned

Social media users told RFA that all WeChat official accounts were recently warned by Tencent not to publish any real-time news or information that hasn’t been through an official approval process.

Sohu  and Baijia have also issued similar notices to users in recent days, banning accounts with no news publishing license from posting on news or current affairs.

“Online censorship is moving away from people’s right [to know] and more towards the power of the government to control the people,” Fang said.

A pastor in a Protestant church in the eastern port city of Qingdao told RFA that the authorities aren’t only concerned with news, but also with religious content.

“I have heard that they will comprehensively rectify citizen journalism, current affairs, politics, commentary, and also religious content,” the pastor, who gave only a pseudonym John, said.

“The government is clamping down on citizen journalism, which will quash freedom of speech even more than before, and mean that the voices of the least privileged people in our society won’t be heard any more,” he said.

Disappeared, detained, jailed

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several citizen journalists who went to Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak to report from the front line, have “disappeared,” been detained or jailed.

According to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, the exact whereabouts of Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi remain unknown.

On Dec. 28, 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by the Pudong District People’s Court, which found her guilty of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a charge frequently used to target critics of the government.

She was accused of “posting false information” on overseas social media platforms Twitter and YouTube, and for giving interviews to foreign news organizations.

Meanwhile, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, who tried to preservedcensored COVID information, are still in detention, CHRD said.

“Outspoken critics of President Xi Jinping for his handling of the pandemic are locked up – Ren Zhiqiang received 18 years in jail, Guo Quan and Xu Zhiyong remain in pretrial detention,” it said in a recent report.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Man Hoi Yan fowhile or the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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