China Tightens Controls on Foreign Media

China on Sunday announced new controls over the distribution of news by foreign news agencies, further restricting foreign access to the already tightly regulated Chinese media market.

The new measures took effect immediately upon being issued by the government's Xinhua News Agency. The regulations give Xinhua broad authority over foreign news agencies, requiring them to distribute news, photos and other services solely through Xinhua or entities authorized by Xinhua.

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The rules would affect The Associated Press, Reuters and other foreign news agencies seeking wider access to the rapidly expanding Chinese market. Under a decade-old set of regulations, foreign news agencies were allowed limited distribution of financial data and other information — deals that the new rules also appear to rule out.

The tighter restrictions and the greater powers given to Xinhua underscore how the Communist Party's political agenda and Xinhua's business interests are coinciding. President Hu Jintao's leadership has sought to rein in a state-controlled media that has strayed from party dictates in search of profits and market share. Journalists and editors have been fired and arrested.

At the same time, Xinhua has been trying to transform itself from an agent of stodgy government propaganda into a worldwide competitor. The agency, founded in 1931 as the Red China News Agency, is trying to build a financial news service and has been trying to leverage Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics to boost its sports coverage and photo services.

"We must also learn, borrow and make use of anything that is advanced, and beneficial to us, the aim being our own growth and expansion," Xinhua's head, Tian Congming, said according to the text of a speech given at a closed-door meeting earlier this year. "Only thus, can we truly hope to find the entry point for leapfrogging growth."

As part of its new powers, Xinhua will also police the distribution of news in the mainland by news agencies from Hong Kong — a former British colony now ruled by China but that operates under separate laws and with a free press — and in Taiwan, which Beijing claims but does not control.

Under the rules, news that disrupts "China's economic and social order or undermine China's social stability" will be banned as will news that undermines the country's "national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity," Xinhua said.

The text of the rules issued by Xinhua made no specific mention of foreign distribution of Internet or video news content, although such activities are restricted under other rules.

The new restrictions would be discussed Monday at the 38-nation Asia-Europe Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, when Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja meets with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, Finland's Foreign Ministry said. Finland currently holds the EU presidency.

China has long sought to limit foreign distribution of news inside the country while exercising harsh limits on domestic media that are often arbitrarily enforced by vaguely worded state security rules that mandate harsh penalties, including long prison terms, for violations.

The new rules appeared designed to end any uncertainties over the government's determination to prevent foreign news businesses from operating in the Chinese mainland.

"Foreign news agencies shall not directly solicit subscription of their news and information services in China," it said.

Xinhua said the rules were meant to "promote the dissemination of news and information in a sound and orderly manner."

Other news banned by the rules included: information that may, "endanger China's national security, reputation and interests," that which may "violation China's religious policies or preach 'evil cults' or superstition," and that which might "incite hatred and discrimination among ethnic groups" or undermine their unity, it said.

Also forbidden are "other content banned by Chinese laws and administrative regulations," it said.

"Xinhua News Agency has the right to select the news and information released by foreign news agencies in China and shall delete any materials mentioned in the items above," it said.

"If a foreign news agency violates the Measures, for example, Xinhua News Agency shall give it a warning, demand rectification within a prescribed time limit, suspend its release of specified content, suspend or cancel its qualifications for releasing news and information in China," it added.

The rules impose "disciplinary penalties" on staff members who violate such restrictions, it said.

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