China has unveiled a new set of restrictions on the type of news content foreign agencies can distribute in China. Press freedom advocates say the move is the latest attempt by the communist government to clamp down on the free flow of information.
The state-owned Xinhua News Agency on Sunday said it was exercising control of all distribution of news in China, including Hong Kong and Macau, regions where there have been long traditions of press freedom.
The agency unveiled 22 articles with restrictions to prevent news reporting that it says may endanger China's national security, undermine social stability, or help spread the influence of what it described as "evil cults" or superstition.
The announcement is drawing concern from media groups, especially in Hong Kong, where the Beijing government had promised to continue the press freedom that has existed since the beginning of British rule over the territory more than 150 years ago.
Serenade Woo, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, calls the restrictions "dangerous." She says they stem from the communist government's growing fear that the free-flow of information could destabilize China and tarnish its image at a time when the country's profile in the world is rising.
"China's story is becoming very powerful [at] the international level and they really want to preserve its reputation among the other countries," said Woo. "So they would like to make sure everything is going in the right direction, in their minds."
Foreign news organizations are often the only way ordinary people in China can learn about public disturbances, arrests of dissidents and religious leaders, public corruption and other subjects the government considers taboo.
Among other things, the rules bar foreign media operations from directly selling subscriptions in China. Instead, they must sell subscriptions through agents designated by Xinhua.
Xinhua said all foreign news organizations that distribute text, photos, and other material that is deemed unacceptable could lose their licenses.
Similar restrictions in the past have been largely ignored.
Other than threatening license suspensions, it is not clear how the government intends to enforce the rules this time, or how many foreign publishers may be affected. Officials at the Chinese foreign ministry, which oversees the activities of foreign journalists and grants them visas to work in China, had no immediate comment.
Voice of America has two correspondents based in Beijing. The Chinese government, however, normally tries to jam VOA's broadcast signals in the country and also blocks access to the VOA Internet sites. It is not clear how the new regulations will affect VOA and other foreign broadcasters.
The measures are the latest in a series of government clampdowns on the media in China. The country remains the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 35 reporters in prison.