U.S. says Iran may have suppressed ‘vital details’ on coronavirus outbreak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said the United States was “deeply concerned” Iran may have covered up details about the spread of coronavirus, and he called on all nations to “tell the truth” about the epidemic.

“The United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country,” Pompeo told reporters, as he also criticized Beijing for what he characterized as the censorship of media and medical professionals.

“All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations,” he said.

Iran’s coronavirus death toll rose to 16 on Tuesday, the highest outside China, increasing its international isolation as nations from South Korea to Italy accelerated emergency measures to curb the epidemic’s global spread.

Believed to come from wildlife in Wuhan city late last year, the flu-like disease has infected 80,000 people and killed 2,663 in China. But the World Health Organization (WHO) says the epidemic there has peaked and has been declining since Feb. 2.

Beijing last week revoked the credentials of three Wall Street Journal correspondents over a column China said was racist, and the United States has said it was considering a range of responses to their expulsion.

Pressed on what steps the Trump administration might take, Pompeo declined to provide any details beyond saying a broad range of options were on the table.

“Expelling our journalists exposes once again the government’s issue that led to SARS and now the coronavirus – namely censorship. It can have deadly consequences,” Pompeo said, referring to the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

“If China permitted its own and foreign journalists and medical personnel to speak and investigate freely, Chinese officials and other nations would have been far better prepared to address the challenge” of coronavirus, he added.

Pompeo said that despite the coronavirus epidemic, the United States planned to move forward and host a special meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Las Vegas in March.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Death of Chinese coronavirus doctor sparks online anger at government

Se Young Lee and Brenda Goh

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A Chinese doctor reprimanded for warning against a “SARS-like” coronavirus before it was officially recognised died of the illness on Friday, triggering online expressions of anger at the government and fuelling suspicions of censorship.

The death of Li Wenliang, 34, came as Chinese President Xi Jinping told the United States that China was doing all it could to contain the virus after earlier assuring the World Health Organization (WHO) of full openness and transparency.

The death toll in mainland China reached 637 on Friday, with a total of 31,211 cases, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva, warning of a worldwide shortage of gowns, masks and other protective equipment.

“For the last two days there had been fewer reported infections in China, which is good news, but we caution against reading too much into that,” he told the WHO Executive Board.

“The numbers could go up again.”

Medical workers in protective suits attend to novel coronavirus patients inside an isolated ward at a hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 6, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump, after speaking to Xi by phone, said China was showing “great discipline” in tackling the virus.

“Nothing is easy, but he will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone,” Trump said on Twitter. “…We are working closely with China to help!”

Ophthalmologist Li was among eight people reprimanded by police in the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the flu-like contagion in central Hubei province, for spreading “illegal and false” information.

Li’s social media warnings of a new “SARS-like” coronavirus – a reference to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed almost 800 people around the world in 2002-2003 after originating in China – angered police.

China was accused of trying to cover up SARS.

Li was forced to sign a letter on Jan. 3, saying he had “severely disrupted social order” and was threatened with charges.

A selfie of him lying on a hospital bed this week wearing an oxygen respirator and holding up his Chinese identification card was shared widely online.

“We deeply mourn the death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang … After all-effort rescue, Li passed away,” the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily said on Twitter.

Social media users called Li a hero, accusing authorities of incompetence.

“Wuhan indeed owes Li Wenliang an apology,” Hu Xijin, editor of the government-backed Global Times tabloid, said on social media. “Wuhan and Hubei officials also owe a solemn apology to the people of Hubei and this country.”

Li’s death was a “tragic reminder” of how China’s preoccupation with maintaining stability drives it to suppress vital information, Nicholas Bequelin, Southeast Asia regional director for Amnesty International said.

“China must learn the lesson from Li’s case and adopt a rights-respecting approach to combating the epidemic,” he said.

 

BATS TO HUMANS?

Some media described Li as a hero “willing to speak the truth” but there were signs that discussion of his death was being censored.

The topics “the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology” and “we want free speech” briefly trended on Weibo late on Thursday, but yielded no search results on Friday.

The virus has spread around the world, with 320 cases in 27 countries and regions outside mainland China, a Reuters tally of official statements shows.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, told the Executive Board in Geneva he was worried about stigma being attached to the virus amid reports of Asians being shunned in the West.

“The unnecessary, unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity is utterly and completely unacceptable and it needs to stop,” he said.

The outbreak could have spread from bats to humans through the illegal traffic of pangolins, the world’s only scaly mammals, Chinese researchers said, sparking some scepticism.

“This is not scientific evidence,” said James Wood, head of the University of Cambridge’s veterinary medicine department.

Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China, in Hong Kong and the Philippines, but how deadly and contagious the virus is remains unclear, prompting countries to quarantine hundreds of people and cut travel links with China.

There were 41 new cases among about 3,700 people quarantined in a cruise ship moored off Japan, taking the total on board to 61.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong quarantined for a third day a cruise ship with 3,600 on board after three people who had been on the vessel proved infected.

Singapore reported three more coronavirus cases not linked to previous infections or travel to China, prompting it to raise its alert to orange, the level reached during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

China has sealed off cities, cancelled flights and closed factories, cutting supply lines to global businesses, so that Beijing resembles a ghost town.

Virus concerns swiped world markets on Friday but failed to stand in the way of the best week for stocks since June and the strongest for the dollar since August.

As Trump praised China’s discipline, the head of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice, Li Fuying, told reporters that people deliberately concealing contacts or refusing to go into isolation could be punished with death.

(Reporting by Se Young Lee and Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing, Yilei Sun in Shanghai, Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru, Silvia Aloisi in Milan and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Giles Elgood)

China bans historical TV dramas ahead of important anniversary

A Chinese flag flutters in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s television regulator has banned “entertainment-driven” historical dramas, it said in a notice on Thursday, the latest clampdown on media in a sensitive year for the ruling Communist Party

The regulator said the ban also applied to so-called idol dramas, which are centered around a celebrity, and it instead called on broadcasters to air patriotic content in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, on Oct. 1.

Censorship of media and entertainment content in China has become tighter under President Xi Jinping, and has intensified this year, with authorities delaying approval for at least three major films that were expected this summer.

The regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, said television channels should broadcast programs from a list of 86 that focus “on different historical aspects that show the great struggle of the Chinese nation as its people have stood up and become richer and stronger”.

The Beijing Daily, a newspaper backed by the Communist Party, in January criticized five popular historical dramas including “Empresses in the Palace” for having a “negative effect” on society. Many such dramas involve palace intrigues and scheming by the main characters.

Idol dramas, a format also popular in Japan and South Korea, have also been criticized by state media as overly materialistic and for being a negative influence on society.

(Reporting by Huizhong Wu, Pei Li and Roxanne Liu; Editing by Tony Munroe)

Russia’s parliament backs new fines for insulting the state online

A view of the Russian Federation Council headquarters, the upper chamber of Russian parliament in Moscow, Russia March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Maria Vasilyeva and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliament on Wednesday approved new fines for people who insult the authorities online or spread fake news, defying warnings from critics that the move could open the way to direct state censorship of dissent.

The bills – which now require only President Vladimir Putin’s signature before becoming law – received broad support in the upper house, days after thousands rallied to protest at tightening Internet restrictions.

Putin’s approval ratings have slipped in recent months to about 64 percent but he faces little threat from an opposition-held back by tough protest and election laws and virtually no access to state television.

One bill proposes fining people up to 100,000 rubles ($1,525) for showing “blatant disrespect” online for the state, authorities, public, Russian flag or constitution. Repeat offenders could be jailed for up to 15 days.

The second draft law would give authorities the power to block websites if they fail to comply with requests to remove information that the state deems to be factually inaccurate.

Individuals would be fined up to 400,000 rubles ($6,100) for circulating false information online that leads to a “mass violation of public order”.

Lawmaker Andrei Klishas, from Putin’s United Russia party and one of the authors of the bills, said false reports that inflated the death toll at a fatal shopping mall fire in Siberia last year illustrated the need to tackle fake news.

“This kind of thing must be screened by the law,” he said.

Russia’s human rights council and a group of over a hundred writers, poets, journalists and rights activists called on the upper house of parliament on Tuesday to reject the law.

Council member Ekaterina Schulmann said the legislation, which the lower house of parliament approved in January, duplicated existing law and added that it could be applied arbitrarily because its wording was so vague.

Prominent cultural figures published an open letter describing the bills as an unconstitutional “open declaration of the establishment of direct censorship in the country”.

The Kremlin denied the legislation amounts to censorship.

“What’s more, this sphere of fake news, insulting and so on, is regulated fairly harshly in many countries of the world including Europe. It is, therefore, of course, necessary to do it in our country too,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Tougher Internet laws introduced over the past five years require search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services and social networks to store users’ personal data on servers within the country.

(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya and Anton Derbenev; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. tech giants eye Artificial Intelligence key to unlock China push

A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Cate Cadell

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. technology giants, facing tighter content rules in China and the threat of a trade war, are targeting an easier way into the world’s second-largest economy – artificial intelligence.

Google, Microsoft Inc and Amazon Inc showcased their AI wares at a state-backed forum held in Shanghai this week against the backdrop of Beijing’s plans to build a $400 billion AI industry by 2025.

China’s government and companies may compete against U.S. rivals in the global AI race, but they are aware that gaining ground won’t be easy without a certain amount of collaboration.

“Hey Google, let’s make humanity great again,” Tang Xiao’ou, CEO of Chinese AI and facial recognition unicorn Sensetime, said in a speech on Monday.

Amazon and Microsoft announced plans on Monday to build new AI research labs in Shanghai. Google also showcased a growing suite of China-focused AI tools at its packed event on Tuesday.

Google in the past year has launched AI-backed products including a translate app and a drawing game, its first new consumer products in China since its search engine was largely blocked in 2010.

The World Artificial Intelligence Conference, which ends on Wednesday, is hosted by China’s top economic planning agency alongside its cyber and industry ministries. The conference aims to show the country’s growing might as a global AI player.

China’s ambition to be a world leader in AI has created an opening for U.S. firms, which attract the majority of top global AI talents and are keen to tap into China’s vast data.

The presence of global AI research projects is also a boon for China, which aims to become a global technology leader in the next decade.

Liu He, China’s powerful vice premier and the key negotiator in trade talks with the United States, said his country wanted a more collaborative approach to AI technology.

“As members of a global village, I hope countries can show inclusive understanding and respect for each other, deal with the double-sword technologies can bring, and embrace AI challenges together,” he told the forum.

Beijing took an aggressive stance when it laid out its AI roadmap last year, urging companies, the government and military to give China a “competitive edge” over its rivals.

STATE-BACKED AI

Chinese attendees at the forum were careful to cite the guiding role of the state in the country’s AI sector.

“The development of AI is led by government and executed by companies,” a Chinese presenter said in between speeches on Monday by China’s top tech leaders, including Alibaba Holding Ltd chairman Jack Ma, Tencent Holdings Ltd chief Pony Ma and Baidu Inc CEO Robin Li.

While China may have enthusiasm for foreign AI projects, there is little indication that building up local AI operations will open doors for foreign firms in other areas.

China’s leaders still prefer to view the Internet as a sovereign project. Google’s search engine remains blocked, while Amazon had to step back from its cloud business in China.

Censorship and local data rules have also hardened in China over the past two years, creating new hoops for foreign firms to jump through if they want to tap the booming internet sector.

Nevertheless, some speakers paid tribute to foreign AI products, including Xiami Corp chief executive Lei Jun, who hailed Google’s Alpha Go board game program as a major milestone, saying he was a fan of the game himself.

Alibaba’s Ma said innovation needed space to develop and it was not the government’s role to protect business.

“The government needs to do what the government should do, and companies need to do what they should do,” he said.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Darren Schuettler)

North Korea says no U.S. talks planned at Olympics, Pence vows continued pressure

Members of North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, February 7, 2018.

By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S. officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media said, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

However, the North’s high-ranking delegation, including the younger sister of its leader Kim Jong Un, will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and have lunch with him on Saturday.

Such a meeting would be the first such event between a South Korean head of state and a member of the Kim family since a 2007 summit meeting of Kim Jong Il and late South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime, spoke with Moon on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with the reclusive North.

Friday’s ceremony will be attended by North Korea’s delegation, including its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North’s leader, and her entourage, will travel by private jet to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Friday, North Korea told the South.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, citing Jo Yong Sam, a director-general in the North’s foreign ministry.

“Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea… Our delegation’s visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding.”

The United States had not requested talks with North Korea, but Pence left open the possibility of some contact although his message for denuclearisation remained unchanged.

In opening remarks during his meeting with Moon, Pence said the United States would never waver in its goal of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile program through strong pressure, an aim shared with South Korea.

Pence has said Washington would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever” while South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters all sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said.

“You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it,” he said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North defends its weapons programmes as necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the war.

MILITARY PARADE

North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday broadcast by state media, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics.

Kim Jong Un, in a black hat and matching coat, saluted troops while his wife walked beside him, television images showed. One of Kim’s close aides, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yong Nam were also in attendance.

The North’s state media also showed what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles on launchers as thousands of North Koreans filled Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, in Pyongyang.

“We have destroyed the enemy’s risk-taking provocations at every move,” Kim Jong Un said in a speech. He did not mention the United States, which North Korea considers its main enemy and regularly threatens to destroy in a sea of flames.

Analysts said the parade seemed smaller than those of previous years, but was still focused on the North’s goal of strengthening its nuclear missile capabilities.

Trump has ordered Pentagon and White House officials to begin planning a military parade in Washington similar to the Bastille Day parade he saw in Paris in July, the Washington Post said.

On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in the 2010 sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.

SEATING COMPLICATIONS

The 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official blacklisted last year by the U.S. Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.

“By sending key figures like his sister, Kim Jong Un is aiming to send a signal to the South that it is giving more weight to inter-Korean ties while driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for the hosts.

South Korea has asked the United Nations for an exemption to allow a U.N.-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.

Pyongyang has yet to mention any change in plans to send him, Seoul said.

The U.N. Security Council, which has slapped sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programmes, imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Choe last year when he was vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.

A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, made up of a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.

(For graphic on North Korea’s Olympic delegations, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2E1Qa9Q)

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Ossian Shine in PYEONGCHANG, Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

China cyber watchdog rejects censorship critics, says internet must be ‘orderly’

China cyber watchdog rejects censorship critics, says internet must be 'orderly'

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s top cyber authority on Thursday rejected a recent report ranking it last out of 65 countries for press freedom, saying the internet must be “orderly” and the international community should join it in addressing fake news and other cyber issues.

Ren Xianliang, vice minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), said the rapid development of the country’s internet over two decades is proof of its success and that it advocates for the free flow of information.

“We should not just make the internet fully free, it also needs to be orderly… The United States and Europe also need to deal with these fake news and rumors” Ren told journalists without elaborating.

China enforces strict internet censorship rules, which have hardened this year with new restrictions on media outlets and surveillance measures for social media sites.

On Tuesday, U.S. NGO Freedom House released an annual report ranking China last in terms of internet freedom for the third year in a row, criticizing censorship activity targeting ethnic minorities, media and regular citizens.

The report also said the manipulation of social media had undermined elections in 18 countries over the past year.

This year China brought in new rules banning virtual private networks (VPNs) and other methods used to circumvent the country’s Great Firewall, which blocks foreign social media and news sites in the country.

The Cyberspace Administration also introduced laws making members of messaging app groups legally liable for content deemed offensive to socialist values.

It comes as China prepares to host the World Internet Conference, the country’s top public cyber policy forum, next month, where members of international governments and the UN will join local officials for a series of discussions on cyber governance.

Several foreign tech firms will also attend the event, including representatives from Facebook Inc, which is blocked behind the Great Firewall but used regularly abroad by Chinese state media outlets.

Ren on Thursday said China welcomed foreign firms to work in the country, on the condition that they abide by local rules and regulations.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

China seeks to silence critics at U.N. forums: rights body report

FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up portraits of Chinese disbarred lawyer Jiang Tianyong, demanding his release, during a demonstration outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, China December 23, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Beijing is waging a campaign of harassment against Chinese activists who seek to testify at the United Nations about repression, while the world body sometimes turns a blind eye or is even complicit, Human Rights Watch said.

In a report released on Tuesday, the group said China restricts travel of activists, or photographs or films them if they do come to the U.N. in Geneva to cooperate with human rights watchdogs scrutinizing its record.

“What we found is that China is systematically trying to undermine the U.N.’s ability to defend human rights, certainly in China but also globally,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“This comes at a point where domestically China’s repression is the worst it has been since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement (in 1989). So there is much to hide and China clearly attaches enormous importance to muting criticism of its increasingly abysmal human rights record.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed the report’s accusations as “groundless”, saying Beijing was playing an active role in the United Nations’ human rights work.

“We urge the relevant organization to remove their tinted lenses and objectively and justly view China’s human rights development,” he told a regular briefing.

Rolando Gomez, U.N. Human Rights Council spokesman, said the office did its best to protect all participants and had been “extremely vigilant in addressing and investigating all acts and perceived acts of intimidation, threats, and attacks brought to its attention”, regardless of which state committed them.

The U.N. system offers one of the few remaining channels for Chinese activists to express their views, the New York-based rights group said.

Its report, “The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms,” is based on 55 interviews.

“NIP-IT-IN-THE-BUD STRATEGY”

“(Chinese President) Xi Jinping seems to have adopted a ‘nip it in the bud’ strategy with respect to activism at home, but increasingly abroad. That’s one of our messages, China’s repression isn’t stopping at its borders these days,” Roth said.

In China, activists have “decreasing space safe” from intimidation, arbitrary detention, and a legal system controlled by the Communist Party, the report said, decrying a crackdown on activists and lawyers since 2015.Some activists who have attended U.N. reviews of China’s record have been punished on their return, it said. Others have their passports confiscated or are arrested before departure.

When Xi addressed the U.N. in Geneva in January, the U.N. barred non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from attending, Human Rights Watch said.

Dolkun Isa, an ethnic Uighur rights activist originally from China, was attending a U.N. event in New York in April when U.N. security guards ejected him without explanation, despite his accreditation, it added.

Jiang Tianyong, a prominent human rights lawyer, disappeared last November, months after meeting in Beijing with U.N. special rapporteur on poverty Philip Alston who has called for his release.

Jiang, after being held incommunicado for six months, was charged with subversion. At his trial last month he confessed, saying that he had been inspired to overthrow China’s political system by workshops he had attended overseas.

“So the signal is clear – don’t you dare present an independent perspective to a U.N. investigator,” Roth said.

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by John Stonestreet)

China holds drill to shut down ‘harmful’ websites

Computer code is seen on a screen above a Chinese flag in this July 12, 2017 illustration photo. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

By Sijia Jiang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China held a drill on Thursday with internet service providers to practice taking down websites deemed harmful, as the country’s censors tighten control ahead of a sensitive five-yearly political reshuffle set to take place later this year.

Internet data centers (IDC) and cloud companies – which host website servers – were ordered to participate in a three-hour drill to hone their “emergency response” skills, according to at least four participants that included the operator of Microsoft’s cloud service in China.

China’s Ministry of Public Security called for the drill “in order to step up online security for the 19th Party Congress and tackle the problem of smaller websites illegally disseminating harmful information”, according to a document circulating online attributed to a cyber police unit in Guangzhou.

An officer who answered the phone in the Guangzhou public security bureau confirmed the drill but declined to elaborate.

President Xi Jinping has overseen a tightening of China’s cyberspace controls, including tough new data surveillance and censorship rules. This push is now ramping up ahead of an expected consolidation of power at the Communist Party Congress this autumn.

The drill asked internet data centers to practice shutting down target web pages speedily and report relevant details to the police, including the affected websites’ contact details, IP address and server location.

China’s cyberspace administration declined to comment, saying it was not the correct department to address the question to. China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

Several service providers, including 21Vianet Group and VeryCloud, issued notices to users, warning of possible temporary service disruptions on Thursday afternoon as a result of the drill, which were confirmed to Reuters by their customer service representatives.

Nasdaq-listed 21 Vianet Group is China’s largest carrier-neutral internet data center services provider according to its website, and counts many Western multinationals including Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and HP among its clients. It runs Microsoft’s Azure-based services in China.

21 Vianet Group did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

China has been tightening its grip on the internet, including a recent drive to crack down on the usage of VPNs to bypass internet censorship, enlisting the help of state-owned telecommunication service providers to upgrade the so-called Great Firewall.

Apple last week removed VPN apps from its app store, while Amazon’s China partner warned users not to use VPNs.

(Reporting by Sijia Jiang; Additional reporting by Susan Gao and Jasper Ng in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Mark Potter)

Egyptian government bans scores of news websites in growing censorship crackdown

By Eric Knecht and Nadine Awadalla

CAIRO (Reuters) – An often fiery government critic, Egyptian journalist Khaled al-Balshi has been arrested, had his operations monitored, and staff harassed by police for years. Yet his website Al-Bedaiah, a rare dissident voice in Egypt, had never been touched.

On Sunday that changed when it suddenly went blank with no warning after being blocked, part of what Balshi called an unprecedented and far-reaching state crackdown on scores of news websites in recent weeks.

“Let’s be clear, the Egyptian websites going through this are dealing with a long-term shutdown — this is not short term,” said Balshi from his downtown Cairo office, where four work stations sat idle, because staff feared coming to work in case of arrest.

Balshi’s website was the 57th blocked since May 24, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a non-government organization tracking the affected sites through software that monitors outages.

Journalists see the campaign against them as a step toward banning all but the most state-aligned media, effectively reversing the private media boom that flourished in the final decade of former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule and which they say helped push him from power in 2011.

Though no precise figures on readership are available, Egypt enjoys an active private media that includes widely read print and web format publications as well as popular late-night talk shows. State newspapers still maintain wide circulation.

The spike in censorship has come as a surprise, even to journalists long-accustomed to reporting within strict red lines in Egypt where direct criticism of the military, the president, and judiciary are considered taboo and punishable by jail time.

The government has offered no comment on the reason behind the blockages and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology had no immediate comment.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD

Makram Mohamed Ahmed, head of the newly formed Supreme Media Council, a state media regulator, told Reuters he believes “the main reason is how much [these websites] deal with the Muslim Brotherhood or express support for terrorism,” referring to the Islamist group whose president Mohamed Mursi held office for a year before being ousted in 2013 by the military after mass protests.

But the blockages have also hit Mada Masr, a self-described progressive outlet with no Islamist ties, as well as the widely read Al-Borsa, a financial newspaper favored by the largely pro-government business community.

“If they did something more grave like arresting team members or me it would make big noise, whereas blocking the website is the best way to paralyze us without paying a high price for it,” Lina Atallah, editor of Mada Masr, told Reuters.

Some journalists say a presidential election in 2018 means Egypt is doubling down on press restrictions, a move intended to ensure opposition candidates have few spaces to challenge general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is widely expected to run for a second term.

“There are people getting ready to nominate themselves for the presidency and they have to make their voices heard or else they won’t be competitive,” said Adel Sabry, the editor-in-chief of Masr al-Arabia, a website blocked last month.

“[The goal] is that it’s just one voice,” said editor-in-chief of Al-Borsa, Hussein Abd Rabo, who said his paper could be closed any day.

FILE PHOTO: Masked Egyptian security forces walk by a demonstration held by journalists and activists against the detention of journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

RED SEA ISLANDS

When Balshi’s website was wiped from Egyptian screens seven of its eight most read articles dealt with the same hot-button issue: a controversial accord transferring two Red Sea islands to Egypt’s top benefactor, Saudi Arabia. The measure is expected to be voted on within days by parliament.

Like another website blocked on Sunday, El Badil, Balshi’s has provided a platform for critics of the deal who argue that the islands are Egyptian territory, a point of view that sparked rare street protests last year calling for the accord’s cancellation.

Balshi and other journalists believe the wave of censorship is meant to neutralize debate on an issue that opposition figures say has already eroded some of Sisi’s support among voters who consider ceding sovereign territory unacceptable.

“I insist that we remain a voice, no matter what. And that we try to preserve our space. I think it should be done even as a suicide mission,” said Balshi. “What can we do?”

(Reporting by Eric Knecht and Nadine Awadalla; Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah, editing by Peter Millership)