China’s internet censors crack down on news portal over US election coverage
Sources say website iFeng angered Beijing’s cyber guardians with its live coverage from a reporter in Washington
China’s internet censors have penalised a leading news portal for its “unauthorised” news reporting, which sources said was linked to its live coverage of last month’s US presidential election.
The Cyberspace Administration of Beijing said on its Wechat public account that it had “summoned” the editor-in-chief of iFeng.com, owned by Phoenix TV in Hong Kong, over the website’s “serious violations of laws and regulations”.
The portal’s alleged offences include “gathering news information and editing news headlines”, using journalists before they had been officially accredited by the authorities, and providing an online news service without a proper licence from China’s media watchdog.
While the administration did not list specific offences, sources close to the matter told the South China Morning Post that iFeng.com was censured because it provided live coverage of the US presidential election, during which Beijing imposed strict censorship.
While most Chinese websites complied with the restrictions, iFeng.com provided live coverage from its journalist in Washington.
The administration ordered iFeng to shut down three sections of the website that contained a “substantial amount of self-collected news content”. It also demanded that the site make a “complete change” to its live video section, which had provided live results as votes were being counted during the US election.
Phoenix New Media, citing iFeng’s chief editor Zou Ming, said in an email to the South China Morning Post that the company would comply with Chinese laws when it operated on the mainland.
“IFeng respects and understands the guidance from related government departments on our content,” the email quoted Zou as saying.
Zou added that the closure of three sections of the website had little impact on its overall content.
China, which ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, has developed one of the world’s most extensive and intrusive systems for controlling the internet. It has a long list of published and secret regulations, an army of online censors and its increasingly sophisticated “Great Firewall” to keep unwanted information off limits to the country’s 680 million Web users.
China has a very strict registration system for journalists, who must be accredited by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television before they can report “legally”.
So far, only 14 websites run directly by official media like Xinhua and People’s Daily are licensed to have their own accredited journalists. The government refuses to accredit employees from China’s leading news portals, including Sina.com, Netease.com and QQ.com, as journalists even though the portals attract hundreds of millions of viewers.
These websites are only permitted to republish news reports from accredited media, so they often operate in grey areas by editing and repackaging online material and even writing their own stories.
The crackdown on iFeng.com raises the question of whether such grey-area operations, with their very limited freedom, will continue to be tolerated. The censors gave no indication if the crackdown would extend beyond iFeng.com to other websites.
It is clear, however, that Beijing is stepping up its censorship of the country’s booming internet media, with dozens of news portals, social media channels and live-streaming sites being disciplined in recent months.
After new regulations for online live streaming came into effect on December 1, more than 1,000 accounts were suspended. In July, Beijing shut down a group of news channels on prominent websites Sina.com, Netease and Sohu.com.
The cyberspace authority said iFeng.com’s coverage caused “extremely negative impacts” and that “iFeng must carefully study the spirit of [party General Secretary] Xi Jinping’s important speech on internet information and stick to the right political direction”.
One of the three sections closed at iFeng was “Serious News”, which billed itself as produced by the “best investigative team” at iFeng, and covered sensitive topics like forced demolition, corruption and sexual harassment.
In November, it published an investigative piece about a petitioner who died after being forced into a vehicle and abused for 81 hours. The story was later removed from the channel.