The Communist Party's propaganda department has set up a points-based penalty system for the print media in a stepped-up effort to tighten its grip on the sector ahead of a crucial party congress this autumn, according to sources.
Media outlets will be allocated 12 points each and subject to closure if all their points are deducted.
The party sources said a taskforce - comprising officials from the party's publicity department and the General Administration of Press and Publication, a government media watchdog - would determine point deductions based on the severity of wrongdoing.
It is not known how the severity of a wrongdoing would be determined, but each penalty would attract a 1, 3, 6 or 12-point deduction, sources familiar with the process said.
The propaganda department and the government's media regulator jointly make discretionary decisions about whether to punish media outlets found to have violated central directives or the party line. Penalties range from internal warnings and the removal of senior executives or officials in charge, to the closure of the publication.
Senior state media executives confirmed they had been briefed on the penalty system but said they had not been given details.
Beijing recently tightened restrictions on freedom of expression and shut down publications that displayed signs of boldness in what propagandists said were steps needed to ensure a harmonious social environment ahead of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party. The event will see a reshuffle of the top political leadership and set the development agenda for the next five years.
The introduction of the points system also highlights Beijing's increasingly strict media controls as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympics.
'The new system is a clear message that the top leadership wants a peaceful social environment ahead of the 17th party congress and next year's Olympics Games,' a senior state media executive said.
The party's propaganda department recently imposed a rule requiring media to seek approval for coverage of politically sensitive topics. This came after leading news magazine Lifeweek was told to clean up its act for defying an earlier directive to refrain from reporting politically sensitive historic events.
Since last year, officials have shaken up newspaper editorial staff and clamped down on internet blogs and chat forums amid a rising number of public disturbances.
Party propagandists and government censors have sacked editors at three outspoken papers - the Beijing News, Southern Metropolis News and Public Interest Times.
The government temporarily shut down Bingdian, a four-page weekly supplement of the state-run China Youth Daily known for its in-depth reporting of sensitive issues. Last year's closure prompted reporters and retired communist reformers to decry what they called a deadening official grip on the press.