China is home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and its most sophisticated system of censorship. Although, Article 35 of the constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and publication, but such rights are subordinated to the discretion of the CCP and its status as the ruling power.
The ruling CCP maintains control over news reporting via direct ownership, accreditation of journalists, harsh penalties for online criticism, and daily directives to media outlets and websites that guide coverage of breaking news stories. State management of the telecommunications infrastructure enables the blocking of websites, removal of mobile-phone applications from the domestic market, and mass deletion of microblog posts, instant messages, and user accounts that touch on banned political, social, economic, and religious topics.
There is no press law that governs the protection of journalists or the punishment of their attackers. Instead, vaguely worded provisions in the penal code and state secrets legislation are routinely used to imprison Chinese citizens for the peaceful expression of views that the CCP considers objectionable. Criminal defamation provisions and more informal judicial interpretations – including 2013 guidelines related to “online rumors” – are occasionally used to similar effect. Since 2015, several new laws or amendments have been passed that codify media controls, enable more surveillance, and increase penalties for political or religious expression.
Mainstream print journalists are periodically arrested or imprisoned, either explicitly for their work or on trumped-up charges such as corruption or illegal business activity. It is more common for freelance journalists, writers, online activists, and a range of other Chinese citizens to be sentenced to prison or administrative detention, particularly for disseminating information online or sending it to contacts outside China. While many mainstream print journalists were detained or sentenced to prison in 2014 and 2015, internet-based writers and freelancers bore the brunt of prosecutions in 2016, marking a return to the previous pattern.
For example, in July 2016, Wang Jianmin, the publisher, and Guo Zhongxiao, a reporter at two Hong Kong magazines, New-Way Monthly and Multiple Face, were charged in China with illegal business operations and sentenced to five years and three months and to two years and three months in prison, respectively. Guo, having served his sentence, was released in September.
Chinese law does not ensure free public access to official information. Under open-government regulations that took effect in 2008, many agencies have become more forthcoming in publishing official documents. During 2016, party and state entities reaffirmed a commitment to increasing government transparency and public comment on draft regulations, while the judiciary continued a trend since 2014 of making more of its decisions available online. However, the courts have largely hesitated to enforce information requests, and government bodies routinely withhold information from journalists and the public, even regarding matters of vital public concern. Critical aspects of policymaking and party personnel decisions remain shrouded in secrecy.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), established in late 2013, is a state agency overseeing online media. It reports to a CCP body created in 2014, known as the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group, which coordinates work on cybersecurity and internet management. The group is headed by President Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan.
In July 2016, the CAC issued new rules barring commercial web portals- such as Tencent News, Sina, and Netease- from producing their own news content about controversial subjects. In November, the National People’s Congress adopted a new cybersecurity law, which was set to take effect in June 2017. The law entrenches existing censorship and surveillance practices while codifying requirements for technology firms to store user information in-country, enforce real-name registration, and provide “technical support” for official investigations. Also in November, the CAC finalized requirements that live-stream services keep user data for 60 days and cooperate in national security investigations.
Journalists and other media workers are legally required to hold government-issued press cards, though some report without one. Those who violate content restrictions risk having their press-card renewals delayed or rejected, being blacklisted outright, getting fired, or facing criminal charges.
In 2015, regulators for the first time issued press cards to online news reporters, allowing them to conduct interviews and report news directly, rather than simply republishing reports by traditional media. However, the permits issued were distributed in a discriminatory manner, with only reporters from party or government-run websites receiving accreditation, while staff from major commercial portals like Sina and Sohu were excluded.
Xi Jinping, the state president and leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), made high-profile visits in February to key state media outlets and called for all media to demonstrate strict adherence to the party line.
The already limited space for investigative journalism and liberal commentary shrank during 2016, continuing a trend of ideological tightening since Xi assumed the leadership of the CCP in 2012. A series of new laws and regulations increased internet censorship, including on the popular WeChat instant messaging tool and online video-streaming platforms. The year’s top priorities for censorship officials included protecting the reputations of Xi and other leading figures and influencing coverage of health and safety issues, foreign affairs, and government wrongdoing.
The government adopted a new cybersecurity law in November, and a series of other regulations that increased restrictions on internet communications, online publication, and video streaming were issued over the course of the year.
Authorities tightened control over news dissemination channels, including social media and mobile-phone applications, and suspended permission for websites to repost content from the prominent news site Caixin.
Although the total of 38 journalists behind bars at year’s end represented a slight decrease compared with 2015, at least 111 journalists, bloggers, online writers, activists, and members of religious or ethnic minorities were sentenced during 2016 to prison terms of up to 19 years for alleged offenses related to freedom of expression or access to information.
Despite the mounting risks and obstacles, several prominent journalists, news outlets, and social commentators publicly criticized official efforts to increase media controls in 2016, while many citizens continued to seek out alternative means of obtaining and sharing uncensored content.