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China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

FILE - Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to curb free speech on the Internet.
FILE - Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to curb free speech on the Internet.

Chinese police authorities are punishing nearly 200 people for their online activities in a renewed effort to limit what can be said on the Internet.

As first reported by the official Xinhua service, China’s Ministry of Public Security said in a statement Sunday that 197 individuals were targeted in the "special campaign" for allegedly posting rumors on the Web that "caused panic, misled the public and resulted in disorders in stock market or society."

Authorities targeted several specific topic areas in identifying those who were punished, citing "inflated" death tolls following last month’s chemical explosions in Tianjin, and a report that a Beijing resident committed suicide following China’s recent stock market slump. An estimated 145 people were reportedly killed in the explosions.

The ministry also said some were targeted for spreading "seditious rumors" related to China’s staged events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Beijing hosted a large military parade and ceremony Thursday to mark the event.

Authorities did not specify the nature of the punishments except to say that 165 online accounts had been shuttered.

Continuing censorship

The crackdown is just the latest manifestation of a long-term effort by Beijing to limit online criticisms of the government and censor websites it finds objectionable.

This February, China moved to block access to a number of VPN servers, angering both free-speech activists and some business leaders. VPNs, or "virtual private networks," are used to bypass Internet censorship and filtering. In recent years, VPNs have proven very popular in China, not just among free speech activists but with many firms conducting international business from China.

Last year, which marked the 25th anniversary of the massacre by Chinese military forces at Tiananmen Square, also saw significant efforts to limit speech and block hundreds of websites.

"The authorities have been doing this for a long time," said the pseudonymous "Charlie Smith" of the censorship monitoring site in an email to VOA. "But they have never done it as extensively as they are doing it now."

Smith said his group has been monitoring a "rapid ramping up of Internet controls" in China since June 2014.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.