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RSF condemns prior censorship and increased Internet control

(RSF/IFEX) - 16 March 2012 - 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 of the annual National People's Congress.

The organization is also very worried by the introduction of a system for identifying bloggers, 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."

Prior censorship

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.

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Company responsibility

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", 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.

Click here to read the full press release
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
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