Authorities in China have clamped down on journalists' use of what has become one of their biggest sources of news: the country's popular social media websites. Under new rules, journalists must verify reports in social media before publishing them.
The Cyber Administration of China has punished some major news websites this year, including Sina, ifeng and 163.com, because they "fabricated stories," the official Xinhua news agency said.
Cyber authorities had already pledged to "vigorously purify" disturbing comments made over social media, and make efforts to "cultivate a healthy and active, progressive internet culture for good, so rational threads [and] goodwill replies [become] common practice on the internet." Outside observers say such descriptions are euphemisms for censoring content the government finds objectionable.
The Chinese media have been routinely quoting postings on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like microblogging platform with more than 200 million users, to report events or details of incidents that are not always confirmed by official sources. A search on the Xinhua website Tuesday revealed hundreds of references to Weibo. The official People's Daily Online even publishes photographs posted by people on Weibo. That could drastically change under the new regulations.
A bigger game
Analysts said the move is part of a larger effort to reorient the attitude of state media and the government propaganda units, as well as artists, musicians, novelists and journalists. The Communist Party feels the media in a wider sense need to refocus on advancing the party's agenda.
"There is an attempt to revamp the role of the media and the cultural industry as a whole. This is an attempt to further legitimize the role of the Communist Party in the changing times," Fengshi Wu, associate professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told VOA.
China's social media are often the first to reveal stories about agitations that occur in different parts of the country and cases of official corruption and mismanagement. Active users of Weibo have exposed dozens of corrupt and wayward officials, often publishing videos of officials taking bribes or soliciting prostitutes.
These materials spilled onto the traditional media outlets, with television, newspapers and online news sites republishing them. Even the country's anti-corruption bureau has often used social media posts as evidence or a starting point for their investigations.
Restrictions on the use of social media as a source for news may result in shutting out a vital source of information, analysts said.
Media's Marxist role
Chinese President Xi Jinping set the ball rolling last February when he visited the offices of three state media companies in Beijing and urged newsmen to pursue "Marxist journalistic education."
Xi, who is also the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, asked journalists to "enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking and deeds to those of the CPC Central Committee and help fashion the party's theories and policies into conscious action by the general public, while providing spiritual enrichment to the people," state media said.
The state-backed China Daily tried to provide a rationale for the media education program when it said in an editorial, "It is necessary for the media to restore people's trust in the party, especially as the economy has entered a new normal and suggestions that it is declining and dragging down the global economy have emerged."
Turmoil within party?
Some see the party's public emphasis on supporting its ideology as a sign of internal turmoil. On June 25, Zhu Tiezhi, deputy editor-in-chief of the Communist Party publication Qiushi Journal, who was seen as a key player in the internal debates, was found dead, the apparent victim of suicide. Zhu was one of the party's senior ideologues and had been engaged in providing Communist rationales for the party's capitalist ways.
But he was believed to have been greatly disturbed by the growing differences between the party's reformists and conservatives. Zhu also wrote that the differences were alienating the people from the party.
"Zhu suffered from depression and was concerned over ideological debates in recent years pitting reformists against a group of increasingly vocal academics in the conservative camp," the Beijing-based independent news outlet Caixin Online quoted his friend as saying.
Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of research on politics, society and media at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute of China Studies, said the suicide was one of several recent incidents that "point to more fundamental disputes within the Chinese Communist Party concerning the role of media and propaganda."
"Like in many suicide cases of party cadres, personal and political factors are possibly involved at the same time," she said.
The suicide caused a stir, with thousands of people posting a wide range of comments over the Chinese internet. Even state media reported that Zhu had hanged himself, because he was too widely known within the party cadre to escape attention.
"Party Secretary Xi Jinping put a greater emphasis on ideology not only as an instrument of discipline, but also as a normative vision to support the CPC’s legitimacy in the wake of slowing economy growth and more expected difficulties related to either economic restructuring or stalled economic reforms," Shi-Kupfer said.