By Natalie Thomas
BEIJING, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Early next year, Chinese journalists will have to pass a new ideology exam to keep their press cards, in what reporters say is another example of the ruling Communist Party's increasing control over the media under President Xi Jinping.
It is the first time reporters have been required to take such a test en masse, state media has said.
The exam will be based on a 700-page manual being sold in bookshops. The manual is peppered with directives such as "it is absolutely not permitted for published reports to feature any comments that go against the party line", and "the relationship between the party and the news media is one of leader and the led".
The impact of increased control in the past year has been chilling, half a dozen reporters at Chinese state media told Reuters, mostly on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for talking to the foreign media without permission.
"The tightening is very obvious in newspapers that have an impact on public opinion. These days there are lots of things they aren't allowed to report," said a journalist at a current affairs magazine.
China has also intensified efforts to curb the work of foreign news organisations. Both the New York Times Co and Bloomberg News have not been given new journalist visas for more than a year after they published stories about the wealth of family members of former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Xi Jinping, respectively.
The General Administration of Press and Publication, a key media regulator, has said via state media that the aim of the exam and accompanying training is to "increase the overall quality of China's journalists and encourage them to establish socialism as their core system of values".
It did not respond to questions from Reuters about the exam or press freedom in China.
"FIGHT TO THE DEATH"
Traditionally, Chinese state media has been the key vehicle for party propaganda. But reforms over the past decade that have allowed greater media commercialisation and limited increases in editorial independence, combined with the rise of social media, have weakened government control, academics said.
China media watchers point to a flurry of editorials after Xi spoke to propaganda officials in August as evidence of concern within the party that control over public discourse was slipping. The official Beijing Daily described the party's struggle to win hearts and minds as a "fight to the death".
Some reporters and academics, however, trace the start of the tougher attitude to a strike lasting several days in January by journalists at an outspoken newspaper, the Southern Weekly, after censors scrapped a New Year editorial calling for China to enshrine constitutional rights. Xi had taken over the Communist Party only several weeks earlier.
"This was a shock to Xi Jinping's leadership (circle)," said Xiao Qiang, a China media expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
"They own these newspapers. That makes it an internal, public rebellion, which made the censorship and media control mechanism look really bad."
The strike ended after local propaganda officials promised to take a lighter hand with censorship. While journalists there would not talk publicly about the matter, some senior reporters have since left the paper, two sources familiar with the matter said, adding they did not know why. The Southern Weekly declined to comment.
MARXIST NEWS VALUES
Journalists will have to do a minimum 18 hours of training on topics including Marxist news values and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, as well as journalism ethics before sitting the exam in January or February.
Reporters who fail the test will have to re-sit the exam and undergo the training again. It's not clear what happens to reporters who refuse to take it.
While in theory all reporters in China need a press card to report, many do so without one, said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Recent scandals in the Chinese media had also raised some questions about the industry's professionalism, Zhan said.
A reporter for the Guangzhou-based New Express tabloid was arrested in October after confessing on state television to accepting bribes for fabricating more than a dozen stories about Changsha-based Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co Ltd.
The reporter wrote that Zoomlion had engaged in sales fraud and exaggerated its profits, accusations strongly denied by the state-owned construction equipment maker.
"It's hard to say if this is really to improve the actions of journalists, or to control them. You don't know what (the authorities) are thinking," Zhan said.
Reporters had little doubt about the aim of the exam.
"The purpose of this kind of control is just to wear you down, to make you feel like political control is inescapable," said a reporter for a newspaper in the booming southern city of Guangzhou.