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EU opposes Chinese limits on foreign news services

The European Union said it opposes the Chinese government's decision giving the Xinhua News Agency sole power to regulate the operations of foreign news services, calling it a „very negative development.” „We consider any kind of restriction to the freedom of the press or increased intervention of the state in this freedom, of course, a very negative development,” European Commission President Jose Barroso told a Helsinki press conference on Monday after a meeting of EU and Asian leaders. China has been clamping down on the media, even as the government prepares to open the nation to unprecedented global scrutiny during the 2008 Olympic Games. Officials have pledged to allow unimpeded access to foreign journalists during the Games, which the government is counting on to showcase two decades of pro-market changes that helped China's economy grow more than 10-fold to become the world's fourth largest. „China's announcement on Sunday of these measures is something that gives the commission real cause for concern,” said Johannes Laitenberger, spokesman for the European Commission, the EU's regulatory branch. „We oppose strongly this kind of restrictive practice,” he said at a regularly scheduled news conference in Brussels yesterday.

Bloomberg LP, Reuters Plc and Dow Jones & Co. are among overseas companies that sell news and information to subscribers in China. Xinhua, while acting as the industry regulator, also competes with foreign news services to sell information. Foreign news services are barred from directly soliciting subscribers in China and must use agents designated by Xinhua, under the rules released on Sunday by the state-run agency and posted on the government's official Web site. The rules give Xinhua the right to select the information released by foreign news services and to delete any materials that undermine China's social stability, endanger national security or disrupt the country's economic order, among other prohibitions. Xinhua formulated the measures „in accordance with national laws, administrative regulations and the relevant regulations of the State Council,” the country's cabinet, according to the agency. The rules aim to „promote the dissemination of news and information in a sound and orderly manner.”

Foreign news services are subject to approval by Xinhua and may face warnings, demands for rectification, suspension or cancellation of their qualifications to release information for breaching the rules, the statement said. Under the rules, foreign news services must not release information that undermines China's national unity, sovereignty or territorial integrity; endangers China's national security, reputation and interests; or violates China's religious policies or preaches „evil cults or superstition.” The regulations also ban incitement of hatred or discrimination among ethnic groups, spreading false information, disrupting China's economic and social order, or undermining China's „social ethics” or cultural traditions. Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, the host of the Helsinki meeting, said today human rights was on the agenda at a separate EU-China summit on Sept. 9, before China imposed the new media restrictions. „On that discussion, we expressed our concern about the restrictions concerning freedom of expression,” Vanhanen said. The EU's next opportunity to raise the issue is at a human rights conference with Chinese officials in October. (Bloomberg)