- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

China’s online watchdog Sunday said authorities will begin punishing websites that report unverified social media claims as news — a decision that critics have condemned as the latest example of Beijing widening its control over the internet.

The Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement that it will begin taking action against outlets that use “unverified content found on online platforms such as social media” in their reporting.

“No website is allowed to report public news without specifying the sources, or report news that quotes untrue origins,” the South China Morning Post quoted from the statement.

“It is strictly forbidden for websites not to specify or to falsify news sources and to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts,” said the Cyberspace Administration, whose tasks include restricting internet access for China’s 1.3 billion residents.

Authorities said Sunday’s directive was made as a result of news outlets having published articles deemed by the government to be false.

“All websites should bear the key responsibility to further streamline the course of reporting and publishing of news, and set up a sound internal monitoring mechanism among all mobile news portals,” the statement read.

The state-run regulator made the announcement less than a week after the nation’s internet czar, Lu Wei, stepped down from his role as the administration’s director following three years at its helm. His former deputy, Xu Lin — a strong supporter of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Morning Post reported — has since been appointed as his replacement.

Mr. Lu has led “a global push for the country’s growing state surveillance and online censorship,” according to The New York Times, the likes of which critics said can be seen within the Cyberspace Administration’s latest directive.

“It means political control of the media to ensure regime stability,” David Bandurski, the editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong, told the newspaper. “There is nothing at all ambiguous about the language, and it means we have to understand that ‘fake news’ will be stopped on political grounds, even if it is patently true and professionally verifiable. This overarching fact negates any real meaning this C.A.C. notice might have in terms of truly curbing the very real problem of sensationalism and corruption in China’s media.”

“The statement is more about intimidating every internet user because they are hard to control,” added Qiao Mu, an associate professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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