BEIJING -- Chinese media outlets will be fined if they report on "sudden events" without prior authorization from government officials, under a draft law being considered by the Communist Party-controlled legislature.
The law would give government officials a powerful new tool to restrict coverage of mass outbreaks of disease, riots, strikes, accidents and other events the authorities prefer to keep secret. Officials in charge of propaganda already exercise considerable sway over the Chinese news media, but their power tends to be informal, not codified in law.
More than 100 million Chinese have access to the Internet, and hundreds of commercially driven newspapers, magazines and television stations provide a much wider selection of news and information than was available in the past. But Chinese authorities have sought fresh ways to curtail reporting on topics they consider harmful to social and political stability.
Journalists say they receive a steady stream of bulletins from the Propaganda Department forbidding reporting on an ever-expanding list of taboo topics, including "sudden events." But a few leading newspapers and magazines occasionally defy such informal edicts. They might find it more costly to ignore the rules if they risked financial penalties.
The draft law, under consideration by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was described in outline by major state-run newspapers yesterday. It says that newspapers, magazines, news Web sites and television stations should face fines ranging from $6,250 to $12,500 each time they publish information about a sudden event "without authorization."
Although the state news media did not offer a definition of "sudden events," in the past the term has included natural disasters, major accidents and events relating to public health and social safety.
Journalists say local authorities are likely to interpret the law broadly, giving officials leeway to restrict coverage of any social or political disturbance they consider embarrassing, such as demonstrations over land seizures, environmental pollution or corruption.
Last fall, the National Administration for Protection of State Secrets removed some information associated with natural disasters, including death tolls, from a list of topics that government agencies had the power to treat as official secrets. The move was viewed as an attempt to disseminate more timely and accurate information about natural disasters.
The declassification came after authorities initially covered up the SARS epidemic in 2003. Health authorities later acknowledged that the cover-up made the SARS outbreak more severe.
The proposed new law would appear to undercut the spirit of that revision, forcing reporters and editors to seek prior approval before writing about disease outbreaks.
"The way the draft law stands now, it could give too much power to local officials to determine that someone has violated the law," said Yu Guoming, a professor of journalism at People's University in Beijing.
Yu said he hoped the legislature would review the draft and make its terms "much more specific," to avoid heavy new restrictions on press freedom.
Others said the impact on the news media could be mixed.
Although the new law could make it easier to punish news outlets for even routine reporting, it also sets a limit on the fine that can be accessed for each violation. Major outlets could afford to risk a fine if they felt the value of the news in question warranted coverage. The fines could presumably be challenged in the courts, which eventually could become a more active forum for deciding the limits of news media controls in the country.