China's media watchdog issued a notice on Wednesday forbidding journalists from writing critical reports without first gaining approval from their employers.
The notice, issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, also requires media outlets to prohibit reporters from privately establishing online platforms to publish critical stories.
Reporters are also banned from involvement in media business operations such as marketing, and media outlets are not allowed to require editors and journalists to promote sales, according to the notice.
The administration requested its local branches to boost a campaign to crack down on fake news and ban journalists and media outlets from extorting money for stories.
Zhang Zhi'an, an associate professor of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University, said that critical reports often became a way for unprofessional reporters to extort money.
"This notice doesn't mean reporters can't write any critical reports or investigative stories. It means journalists can't do those stories without approval," Zhang said.
He added that if media outlets know nothing about their reporters' stories, they are not able to supervise their reporters if they try to use stories to extort money.
The administration also on Wednesday revealed details of eight cases of journalism malpractice. In one case, Zhang Hao, a journalist with Southwest Business, a Sichuan-based newspaper, charged a township government in
Chongqing 40,000 yuan ($6,419) for advertising in 2013. Zhang was fined and stripped of his press card by Sichuan provincial authorities, while the newspaper was also warned and fined in April.
However, the notice also sparked public discussion over the authorities' increased control on media.
A Shanghai-based media expert, surnamed Wei, told the Global Times that the rule can be understood as a way to further influence public opinion.
With the notice, reporters might avoid such stories in fear that some government organs and companies would reject interview requests by accusing them of "blackmailing," Wei said, adding that more restrictions to reporters' own social media accounts might follow.
An experienced reporter working in a local newspaper in Chengdu told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that it is necessary to crack down on fake news, but the notice must clarify what the standards really are for these "critical reports without approval."
Without an interpretation, each outlet will impose their own interpretation of the rule, which could lead to a drop in any type of critical reporting, the journalist said. Investigative journalists often have to conduct interviews before proposing story ideas to their editorial board for approval, the reporter said. Under the new requirements, they might have to change their work style, he added.