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Ban on quoting foreign media reports without permission; restrictions on earthquake coverage

Reporters Without Borders roundly condemned the draconian directive that China's media regulator - the General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television - issued on 16 April 2013 banning the Chinese media from using unauthorized information from foreign media and websites.

"This directive marks a new stage in the reinforcement of censorship, which has been increasing steadily since the Communist Party's 18th Congress last November," Reporters Without Borders said.

"The censors have had the foreign media in their sights ever since they published embarrassing revelations about China's leaders. The regime is trying to prevent the Chinese media from repeating such revelations.

"The initiative seems bound to fail in the era of Weibo and social networks, where information and revelations from the foreign media circulate like wildfire. But it could be used to justify new acts of censorship and could therefore have an impact on the Chinese media, which often quote international news agency reports in particular."

Reporters Without Borders added: "The international media continue to play a key role both in informing the international community about what is happening in China, and in informing the Chinese public, which is the victim of the government's growing censorship of the local media."

According to the directive, "all kinds of media work units may not use any unauthorized news products provided by the foreign media or foreign websites." They are also forbidden to use information provided by "news informants, freelancers, NGOs or commercial organisations" without "prior verification."

A report on the directive published on 16 April by China Press and Publishing Journal, an offshoot of the media regulator, urged the media to "strengthen the management" of their websites, blogs and micro-blogs, both professional and private.

The directive was issued the same day that the New York Times was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its October 2012 exclusive on the fortune amassed by former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's family.

The newspaper's revelations were censored in China and its journalists' email accounts were the targets of cyber-attacks aimed at identifying their sources. The authorities also blocked searches for "Wen Jiabao" and "New York Times" on the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo.

The Bloomberg news agency's website was blocked on 25 June 2012 after it ran a story about the fortune held by the family of Xi Jinping, who has since become president.

The BBC World Service announced on 25 February 2013 that the shortwave broadcasts of its English-language service had been jammed in China. At the same time, several foreign journalists including Melissa Chan and Chris Buckley have had problems obtaining visas.

China is ranked 173rd out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Authorities urged not to limit coverage of Sichuan earthquake

In a separate development, Reporters Without Borders is concerned about news coverage of the 20 April earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan and urges the authorities not to resort to censorship and harassment of news providers as they have done in similar circumstances in the past.

"Our thoughts are above all with the earthquake victims and their relatives," Reporters Without Borders said.

"In the chaos of an emergency situation such as this, it is essential that the victims and others affected by the disaster get as much information as possible. The initial behaviour by the authorities suggests that they may be repeating the same policy of censorship that was so counter-productive after the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

"In 2008, censorship left countless families in a state of confusion and incomprehension, leading to protests. The censorship also delayed identification of grave errors by local officials and construction companies, who were responsible for the deaths of thousands of children attending poorly-built 'tofu' schools.

"We urge the authorities to allow news providers to freely cover the consequences of the earthquake and we urge them to refrain from citing public order and safety as grounds for blocking Chinese and foreign media that would like to go to Sichuan province."

In particular, Reporters Without Borders asks the Sichuan authorities, the military and the government officials in charge of relief and reconstruction to:

- Allow news providers to enter the disaster areas and talk to victims

The provisional toll from the 20 April quake is already more than 200 dead and missing and 12,000 injured. A group of bloggers and human rights defenders who included Huang Qi, founder of the 64 Tian Wang website, were intercepted as they tried to reach Ya'an.

"The authorities kept us for several hours, warning us not to 'add more trouble' to the disaster," Huang told Radio Free Asia. A policeman reportedly mentioned the jail sentence Huang received after visiting the area devastated by the 2008 quake.

- Not issue propaganda directives to local and national media, telling them how to cover the quake

When the Tibetan province of Qinghai was hit by an earthquake on 14 April 2010, a few days before the start of the Shanghai World Expo, the authorities imposed strict rules on the media, telling them to cover the quake in "scientific" terms and to refrain from criticizing the earthquake risk prevention agency.

A directive issued by the Propaganda Department on 25 April 2010 urged the media to cut back their coverage of the aftermath of the quake and to concentrate on the World Expo.

- Refrain from taking reprisals against journalists and citizen-journalists who cover the quake

The blogger and environmental activist Tan Zuoren was arrested in March 2009 after urging netizens to go and see the plight of the families who had been left homeless by the previous year's earthquake in Sichuan.

Convicted of "inciting subversion of state authority," he was sentenced to five years in prison and three years loss of political rights – a sentence confirm on appeal by a Sichuan court on 9 June 2010. The artist Ai Weiwei was roughed up by the authorities when he tried to testify in Tan's defence at the original trial.

- Not arrest or prosecute anyone in an attempt to gag those who discuss the consequences of the quake

Huang Qi and two human rights activists were arrested by three unidentified men in Chengdu on 10 June 2008 in an operation that bore the hallmarks of the Public Security Bureau. The following year, Huang was sentenced to three years in prison on a charge of "illegal possession of state secrets."

Former university professor Zheng Rongling was also arrested after posting three articles about the 2008 quake on a website based in the United States.

- Refrain from using threats or administrative pressure to get foreign journalists to censor themselves

While a number of foreign journalists were able to access the quake-hit area freely in 2008, none was allowed to visit the Tibetan plateau. Those who wanted see how reconstruction had progressed a year later were denied access to the affected areas and officials accused them of being "trouble-makers."

Several cases of harassment, threats or violence were reported. Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, who made a documentary called "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province," were refused to visas to attend its screening at the Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2009.

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