Privately, reporters see move as fresh bid for media control Mainland media were muted yesterday in their coverage of the Supreme People's Court's decision to appoint official judicial spokesmen, but some in the media and legal communities fear the move will remove public oversight of the system and further limit press freedom. Court president Xiao Yang announced on Tuesday that spokesmen had been appointed by the Supreme People's Court and all provincial higher people's courts to release information on open trials and court activities. However, the decision also restricts court staff from talking to the media without approval from the courts' propaganda arm. Supreme People's Court vice-president Cao Jianming also specified 'forbidden zones' of information that could not be released to the media, including information related to state secrets, issues of commercial confidence, teenagers' criminal records, closed trials and internal court documents, and 'any information court officials did not want released'. The unauthorised release of general data on criminal case loads would also be off-limits. The mainland's main media outlets published no reaction to the new rule except a Xinhua article explaining the new system. But privately, reporters and lawyers expressed concern about the ban, criticising the regulation as 'rule by man rather than rule by law'. One reporter said the system was another attempt by authorities to tighten their grip on the media. 'It's an information control system rather than a spokesman system. It will act as a way of avoiding releasing anything,' the reporter said. A senior editor said the restrictions would sacrifice the media's supervisory role, exercised in the interests of the public, especially in sensitive cases concerning state-owned enterprise reform, wage disputes, housing demolitions and property disputes. 'I think the new system, by its nature, is designed to block the release of news on the courts' handling of these issues,' he said. 'The rule could be used to help maintain judicial independence and avoid media intervention in trials, but this function cannot be realised in today's China considering the widespread corruption and injustice in the court system. 'In a place where media freedom is narrow and the judicial system is relatively corrupt and opaque, legal reporting acts mainly as a monitor of the courts' work. It also reflects public concern about important trials, and functions in the public interest to prevent interference in the judicial system by administrative and external forces. 'In my decades of experience covering legal and court stories, now is the darkest time.' Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said the rule would have a negative impact on the media and strip the public of its right to know if local courts extended it to other areas which deserved public attention. 'The item that restricts court staff from releasing information which court officials don't want released is totally unreasonable and illegal, because the court officials' preferences cannot represent the law,' Mr Pu said. In the future, court staff would refuse to disclose any information even if it was related to the unfairness of a trial or court corruption. 'What if the courts act inappropriately and court officials are corrupt and need public supervision?' Just last month, the head of the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court, Zhou Wenxuan , was detained by police for allegedly taking bribes. And in April, three former chairmen of Anhui's Fuyang Intermediate People's Court were arrested for taking bribes during their time on the bench.