BEIJING, Apr 30 (Reuters) A coalition of Chinese Web activists has launched a petition decrying censorship of the Internet and challenging the legality of government information controls on China's more than 100 million net users.
Hundreds of citizens signed the petition along with representatives of 13 local Chinese Web sites recently closed or targeted by censors. It began circulating yesterday via email and overseas Chinese-language Web sites unaffected by domestic censorship.
The signatories said China's constitution grants citizens freedom of expression and publication, and those rights ''should be respected and protected, and should not be subject to any unlawful restrictions and obstructions''.
Beijing rights activist Chen Yongmiao, who helped organise the petition, today told Reuters he had been prompted to act by the March closure of the Aiqinhai Web site, based in the eastern province of Zhejiang, that specialised in adventurous cultural commentary.
Zhejiang officials cited ''Internet News Information Service Administrative Regulations'' issued by the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Information Industry in September claiming Aiqinhai had not sought necessary approval, the petition said.
But Chen said the petition argued that these regulations flouted China's own constitution and a law limiting administrative application requirements.
''The State Council Information Office's rules about who can use the Internet to disseminate news are far too restrictive,'' Chen told Reuters.
''The problem is we're supposed to enjoy freedom of expression, but rules like these mean all the channels for expression are blocked.'' China says its restrictions on the Internet are no different from those applied by other countries, and denies that citizens can be imprisoned for expressing their views on the Internet.
But US Congress members, international rights groups and Internet activists say Chinese censors wield vast powers that they have used to jail citizens for expressing political views.
In a sign of growing domestic dismay about censorship, the signatories of Chen's petition included not only liberal activists but also operators of left-wing Chinese Web sites that cite Marx and Mao to criticise inequality and injustice.
These sites include The Communist; the Worker, Peasant, Soldier Bulletin; and the Chinese Worker -- all of them shut down during the 15-day national parliament session in March, according to the petition.
''The left and the right -- all political expression -- are silenced by these restrictions,'' Chen said, ''so it made sense to bring together all the different views affected.'' REUTERS SI PM1358