China tries to rein in Internet with new threats

BEIJING (AP) — China’s censors are trying to prevent critical postings and rumors on the Internet from reaching a broader audience, issuing new orders to prohibit news media from reporting online information before it is verified.

The regulations, dated last month and posted Friday on an official website, are the latest attempt by the authoritarian government to retighten control over information that has been loosened as people use social media to pass on news and bypass traditional censorship.

The rules ban reporters and news media from reporting any information taken from the Internet or mobile phones without firsthand verification. Violators may be barred from working in media for five years, and serious infractions may lead to criminal charges.

A media regulator said the rules are needed to restore government prestige and media credibility following a spate of reports based on “false information” — often a euphemism for reports the government would rather suppress.

“Unverified reports are on an upward trend, and to a certain extent that has undermined the government’s image, disrupted the information order, reduced the credibility of the media and brought a strong social response,” the General Administration of Press and Publications, the agency that regulates printed media, said on its website.

In one sense, the regulations confront an issue media and governments around the world face in the Internet era: how to ensure the reliability of information, photos and video when ordinary people, not just professional media, can generate and circulate them instantly across cyberspace.

Many of the rules outline what are normal procedures in newsrooms in other societies. The rules forbid publishing doctored images and place restrictions on the use of anonymous sources.

But in China, where the media have long been tightly restricted, regulations are often used to enhance government control. Social media, especially Twitter-like micro-blogs known as “weibo” in Chinese, are among the few channels where critical information and opinions circulate, often too quickly for the censors to react.

Ever since news of a crash on the country’s showcase high-speed rail network that killed 40 people in July first appeared on micro-blogs — and derisive comments about the official response followed — the government has been battling to reassert control over the message. Particular pressure has been focused on micro-blog operators to deploy more censors to scrub “false information” in rapid time.

Last weekend, top Communist Party officials called in senior executives from more than three dozen Internet, telecommunications and technology companies for a talk. State media said they were exhorted to develop “healthy Internet culture.”

The new regulations specifically target “critical reports,” which they do not define. Under the rules, reporters must obtain at least two sources for any such reports and make sure that all facts are verified and that any analysis or commentary is fair.