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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.

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Critics say this points up the conflict of interests between Xinhua as state regulator and content provider.

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"Economically, Xinhua will benefit from these rules. Politically, it's also a very efficient way to control (the media), as Xinhua will only send out what it sees fit," says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at Berkeley University. "China is more connected to the world and part of the global economy, but in the media, there's more and more government control."

Laws and jailings target journalists

In recent months, China has provided plenty of ammunition for critics. Two prominent local reporters for foreign media organizations were sentenced to jail terms last month in secret trials that sent a chilling message to independent-minded journalists. Another cause for concern: a draft law on news reporting on deadly disasters, such as mining accidents, that would fine errant news outlets.

Government officials have said their aim is to prevent distorted reporting that could undermine the "harmonious society" that is the current buzzword of the communist party leadership. "The government wants to see the commercialization of the media, but it has concerns about the spread of 'fake news,'" says Dong Guanpeng, associate dean of journalism and communications at Tsinghua University.

Analysts and media insiders say it's an open question as to how effectively Xinhua can corral the flow of general news and information, particularly on international stories where foreign agencies have the edge.

Local TV stations have in recent years begun to air footage from Reuters, Associated Press, and other foreign media companies, in violation of existing rules. In April, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television warned stations they should only run reports from state-run China Central Television.

But that hasn't stopped the practice, said a media-studies professor in Beijing, who declined to be named. "On the one hand, the government wants to control international news reporting more strictly, but on the other, domestic media really want their own international reports because they think this programming will attract an audience," he says.

Even harder to regulate is the Internet, though China runs a sophisticated filtering system that US companies such as Google and Yahoo have been criticized for incorporating into their local products. Chinese news portals freely mix and match stories and pictures from domestic and foreign sources, often without permission, to the frustration of foreign news agencies that are forbidden to sell directly.

Savvy print journalists will continue to access alternative sources of information to balance what the government says, but the new rules will force them to further censor their own copy, argues Mr. Xiao. "For regular readers, the new controls will be effective, they will lower the scope of what they read, especially on international news," he says.