China Tightens Information Sharing Rules for Media

Update: For a full translation of the SAPPRFT regulations covered below, see the Chinalawtranslate Community Translation Project.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), China’s main state media regulator, has issued rules that could limit the information sharing abilities of journalists and other media professionals. From Xinhua:

Journalists are banned from illegal copying, recording, or storage of state secrets, according to the rules made public on Tuesday but released by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television on June 30.

According to the administration, the rules cover various information, materials and news products that journalists may deal with during their work, including state secrets, commercial secrets and unpublicized information.
Under the rules, journalists should not violate non-disclosure agreements signed with their employers. [Source]

Earlier today, CDT translated a Chinese-language report from Xinhua with more comprehensive coverage of the new directive. The circular forbids the “leaking or releasing [of] professional information through blogs, Weibo, public or personal WeChat accounts, or any other channels.” This condition could potentially stifle the propaganda and censorship directives regularly leaked by Chinese journalists online.

The new announcement comes less than a month after SAPPRFT published regulations on “critical” news reports—a move described by Beijing not as a means to stifle general criticism, but to crackdown on “crooked and fake reporters who demand hush money for burying negative stories.” Following “a degree of alarmism” in the foreign press about the regulations last month, China Media Project’s David Bandurski noted that the rules were consistent with longstanding Chinese media policy, though the language used in the circular was “dangerously ambiguous.”

Ambiguity also surrounds China’s definition of “state secrets,” and Beijing has been known to retroactively label information with that tag. Reuters reports:

News organisations must also require employees to sign pledges that they will not disclose secrets.

China’s state secrets law is notoriously broad, covering everything from capital punishment statistics to industry data. Information can be labelled a state secret retroactively.

The issue drew international attention in 2009 when an Australian citizen and three Chinese colleagues working for mining giant Rio Tinto were detained for stealing state secrets during the course of tense iron ore talks. [Source]

The South China Morning Post has more background on China’s state secrets law, and also expert opinions on the vague definition of the term and who should be responsible for protecting them:

Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the directive was the first of its kind to set out specific rules for how journalists and media organisation should handle state secrets.

“It is … backtracking from the government’s previous pledge to be more open and transparent,” said Zhan, adding that the new instruction could be abused by government bodies wanting to hide information from the public if the definition of what is a state secret was not clearly spelled out.

“There needs to be a clear definition of what makes a state secret. It will be problematic for journalists if it’s too vague,” said Zhan.

The State Secret Law was amended in 2010 to cover everything from capital punishment statistics to industry data.

[...] “From a lawyer’s perspective, protecting state secrets should be an obligation for government officials, not journalists,” [rights lawyer] Mo [Shaoping] said. [Source]

Outspoken journalist Gao Yu has been in detention since April for allegedly leaking state secrets to foreign media. Early this year, Xinhua lauded a new rule forbidding officials from inappropriately labeling information as a state secrets as a move towards transparency—but, as noted by Reuters, the rule failed to offer a clear definition of what information should be made public.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, the central government has been steadily tightening control over Internet and print media, as can be seen in an ongoing rumor crackdownanti-vulgarity drive, and requirements that journalists take courses in the “Marxist view of journalism.”  Notorious for exercising strict censorship over official outlets and encouraging self-censorship in independent media, China came in 173/180 on Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index this year.