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    Greater China
     Sep 14, 2006
China's headline news
By John Ng

HONG KONG - China's leaders are defending a new regulation restricting press freedom of foreign news agencies in the country amid harsh criticism overseas.

Arriving in London for an official visit, Premier Wen Jiabao said he believed foreign news agencies in China would abide by Chinese laws, though he also added that the country would ensure the free flow of financial information.

In Beijing, Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said: "The regulation is to standardize the release of news ... and to

protect the intellectual-property rights of the foreign news agencies ... The release of the regulation is a demonstration of the spirit of the rule of law ... China is a country ruled by law. There is no absolute freedom in any country."

On Sunday, in an apparent move to strengthen government censorship and control information flow, China unveiled a regulation that imposes new restrictions on the dispatch of news stories by foreign news agencies working in the country.

The immediately effective regulation bans such agencies from directly soliciting potential subscribers in China. The foreign agencies must distribute their news stories through the state-run Xinhua News Agency or via an agent authorized by Xinhua.

The regulation was unveiled ahead of the all-important 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party to be held late next year. Analysts say one aim is to curb speculation about power struggles and sensitive personnel reshuffles at the top before they are officially announced.

"The Communist Party and the government always view leadership reshuffles as top-secret and want to carefully guard [them]. But in fact, speculation is always rife ahead of such an important meeting, which officials fear may cause confusion among the public. The regulation is apparently aimed at preventing such speculation,'' one analyst said.

Last month, Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times, was sentenced to three years in prison. Zhao was arrested in 2004 after the newspaper carried a report correctly predicting that former president Jiang Zemin would step down as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Though he was cleared of this charge, Zhao was found guilty of the lesser, unrelated crime of fraud.

The new regulation makes it illegal for foreign news agencies to distribute articles that "undermine China's national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" and "endanger China's security, reputation and interests". It also imposes restrictions on access to a multimillion-dollar financial-information market for foreign providers of financial news.

Xinhua is given the power to screen out any information from foreign news agencies that it deems harmful. And foreign agencies will be punished if they violate the regulation.

Major foreign news agencies operating in Beijing, such as Reuters and the Associated Press, ran straightforward news stories on the new regulations but had no immediate comment on how their operations would be affected.

A similar but less strict regulation has been in place since 1996. It allowed major foreign agencies such as Reuters and Bloomberg to provide clients with financial information and economic news directly.

The new regulation has also sparked concern whether Beijing will live up to its promise to grant foreign journalists unprecedented freedom during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. But Qin played down such concerns: "The regulation does not apply to foreign journalists' reporting in China during the Olympic Games."

But Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, was skeptical. "These latest measures sound a wake-up call to the international community that a closed, state-controlled Olympics is on the horizon," she told the Associated Press.

Joel Simon, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the new rules as "a step backward". Reporters Without Borders said the changes could have a "serious impact" on the work of foreign news agencies. In a statement issued late on Monday, Reporters Without Borders accused Xinhua of becoming a "predator of both free enterprise and freedom of information".

Business-news services that sell information directly to Chinese customers are likely to be among the worst affected. "We are studying these rules closely to see how they differ from the current guidelines and will be discussing the details of the new regulation with Xinhua," a Reuters spokesperson told the British Broadcasting Corp.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also criticized the regulation, saying that any restriction on press freedom was "a very negative development". The European Union plans to broach the subject during human-rights talks in Beijing next month.

Taiwan, China's arch-rival, has also denounced the new regulation.
According to Taiwan's government-run Central News Agency, the island's top mainland-policy maker denounced China on Tuesday for its new restrictions on information flow by foreign news agencies in China, saying the new curbs are an "outrageous" setback against the prevailing global trend of protecting press freedom.

The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) contested Xinhua's claim that the new measures are necessary for promoting the dissemination of news and information in a "sound and orderly manner". The MAC denounced them "as yet another round of suppression of freedom of the press and free flow of information".

In June, the MAC said, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress - China's parliament - began to screen a draft package of regulations to restrict reportage on breaking news, prompting the international community to question its motivations and practices.

The MAC continued that mainland China's recent track record of human-rights suppression and its clampdown on press freedom - the five-year sentence to Ching Cheong, the ethnic-Chinese correspondent of Singapore's Straits Times, the detention and indictment of a number of outspoken human-rights activists and lawyers as well as the promulgation of new regulations on the operations of foreign news agencies in China - have reached the point where the free world can no longer afford to keep mum.

John Ng is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong.

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