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China reins in reach of foreign news

Directives ban reports that 'undermine national unity' and set fines on outlets that use unauthorized material.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2006



BEIJING

A commercial power play or another blow to press freedom?

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On Sunday, China's official news agency Xinhua issued a new set of directives on the distribution of foreign news in China that reinforces its traditional role as gatekeeper and propaganda arm. That role includes filtering news and pictures from international news agencies, which are forbidden from selling their content direct to Chinese media outlets. Foreign news reports that "undermine national unity" or disrupt "economic and social order," among other catch-all categories, will not be distributed.

The move comes as the country's official media begin to feel the heat from globalization, a development that so far has seen China among its chief financial beneficiaries. But growing competition from international news and media services boosts fears in Beijing that the government could lose control – and the state media lose out.

The Xinhua directives on news distribution include penalties for outlets that use unauthorized foreign news, as well as the power to suspend services from foreign agencies selling content directly to Chinese media.

What this means for China's over 2,000 newspapers and thousands of magazines and other publications is unclear. Many already rely on Xinhua, founded in 1931 as the Red China News Agency, for much of their political content, and take a lead from its line on sensitive topics, such as natural disasters or events in Taiwan. Xinhua has long insisted on its monopoly on official news, even as the rise of new-media outlets has weakened its grip on public debate, for example by translating foreign reports.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman denied Tuesday that the new rules were restrictive. "This law is meant to organize the distribution of foreign news in China," Qin Gang told a briefing, according to Bloomberg. "It is meant to protect the interests of Chinese citizens and foreign news agencies."

A chill on frank reporting

Media-freedom advocates say the directives chill the climate for frank reporting in China and contradict assurances from Beijing of looser controls ahead of the 2008 Olympic games. A European Union official told reporters after a summit with Asian leaders held in Finland that the measures were a "very negative development." In a statement, Reporters Without Borders said: "Xinhua is establishing itself as a predator of both free enterprise and freedom of information."

The reference to free enterprise, which has replaced communism as China's economic driver, is telling. In many ways, say analysts, Xinhua is simply doing what any flailing incumbent tries to do in a tough market: put one over its rivals. It may fear that Chinese media executives would prefer to deal direct with foreign-news agencies, leaving it out in the cold, and wants to protect a monopoly.

Most lucrative of all is China's booming financial-services industry, which has an increasing appetite for real-time global news and data. Since 1996, companies in China have been allowed to buy dedicated terminals from Bloomberg and other financial news providers, bypassing Xinhua, which runs its own financial-news service. This right may now be in jeopardy.

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