Panama papers, which leaked the names of global elites who own offshore companies, have sent shockwaves across the globe. The documents have sparked frenzied media coverage – especially digital media in Toronto, news accounts in Chinese social media WeChat are very slow to respond. News on the Panama papers has not yet been covered by any of the news accounts in China and overseas – including Toronto.
This callous attitude towards this very sensational news is unsurprising at all. Editors of news account practice self-censorship. The leaked documents – which revealed names of relatives of Chinese top politicians, have touched nerves of the Chinese top leaders, and they sensed the risks and threat of publishing the political sensitive information.
Over the years, WeChat has grown into a very powerful news media tool. WeChat public news accounts are typically used by media companies to share news with subscribers and have become a major news source for people in China. With the growing popularity in Toronto, the Chinese community has also relied on these public accounts for news consumption.
But its growing influence has also caused the concerns of the Chinese government, which has increasingly flexed its muscles and issued gag orders. Potentially, any public accounts that spread negative news about the Chinese government would be tracked down and potentially face being shut down.
In early 2014, the Chinese government launched a crackdown targeting over 100 accounts that “disseminate negative or illegal harmful information to the public”. According to China News Service, authorities would also seek to weed out domestic and foreign forces seeking to infiltrate and sabotage China.
There are even worries that it would also track down users who help spread news critical of the government. In a renewed campaign on online discourse, the party threatens legal action against people whose “perceived rumour of microblogs” are reposted over 500 times or seen by more than 5000 people.
Since that crackdown, Tencent, the parent company of WeChat has attempted to verify the real identities of the users behind public accounts by forcing the holders to upload their ID and mobile phone information. Before messages are sent to subscribers, the account holder must scan her own personal WeChat code. This way Tencent can always find out who spread an “illegal” message.
The crackdown could easily extend to overseas’ news accounts. “The Chinese government could in theory gain access to anything stored on a server in China,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and internet. “Furthermore, the Chinese government could in theory apply pressure on a company whose major operations and revenue are in China to hand over data stored outside China.”
Chinese government’s scrutiny has sent a chilling effect on free speech across the country. With the new crackdown on mobile apps, people are likely to watch their words before they post anything sensitive on WeChat. And gripped by fear, news account holders are under even tighter bonds, forced to screen out any news that implicates the government or the leaders.
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