China tightens control of online news after sensitive gaffes

BEIJING — The Chinese government is holding chief editors of news websites personally liable for content, months after several portals posted material that was seen as embarrassing to President Xi Jinping.

State media reported Thursday that the new rules placed responsibility squarely on head editors, saying news sites must monitor their content 24 hours a day to ensure "correct orientation, factual accuracy and appropriate sourcing." The new rules were discussed at a meeting in Beijing this week convened by the government's Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and involving 60 media executives and industry scholars, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The rules reflect the Xi administration's efforts to ratchet up control over Chinese media and cyberspace, which has touched both traditional state propaganda outlets and private sector media companies.

Although efforts by Chinese internet censors to purge sensational rumors, unwanted political content and pornography are nothing new, a series of high-profile gaffes in recent months have intensified scrutiny of news portals, which are seen by the majority of the 700 million Chinese internet users.

Tencent, one of China's most popular websites, fired its top editor after a July headline mistakenly said Xi delivered a "furious" — instead of "important" — speech commemorating a Communist Party anniversary. The two words are similar in the Chinese spelling system.

In March, an online portal called Wujie published — inadvertently apparently — a letter calling for Xi's resignation and warning of dangers to his personal safety. The post garnered widespread attention among Chinese political observers and led to the detention of several writers and editors.

The Chinese leader made a high-profile tour of state media outlets in February to demand closer adherence to the Communist Party line, while the CAC, the country's internet censor, investigated the editorial operations of eight web companies several months later.

Chinese web companies are permitted only to republish content produced by closely regulated traditional media outlets under longstanding, though loosely enforced, media laws. But many private digital firms, including Tencent and Sina — internet companies publicly listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq, respectively — have formed teams of journalists that pursue original reporting and operate with a degree of relative freedom.

Participants at this week's meeting with regulators were told to avoid publishing to "attract eyeballs" and operate their portals with "responsibility and restraint" to avoid spreading disorder and potentially endangering national security, according to Xinhua.

Regulators also directed the company executives to study Xi's recent remarks calling for closer online information management.

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