By Megha Rajagopalan and Paul Carsten
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's internet regulator, asked about the apparent blocking of some online accounts of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, said on Friday that internet service providers were responsible for online content and had the right to shut down websites.
The comment came in response to a Reuters enquiry about reports that the social media accounts of Hong Kong's biggest English-language daily newspaper had been blocked and that a critical online Chinese-language Caixin magazine article had been deleted.
"The state internet information office has enforcement responsibility, in accordance with the law, to carry out internet information content management and supervision," the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a faxed statement.
"Internet information service providers take on the main responsibility for any law-breaking and harmful internet accounts that exist, and have the right in accordance with the relevant laws and rules and their user 'service agreements' to take measures including temporarily halting usage and cancelling registration."
Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on an unprecedented effort to clamp down on the internet and censor opinions that do not fall in line with those of Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
The South China Morning Post has in recent weeks reported the mystery of five Hong Kong booksellers who dealt in gossipy books about Chinese leaders and went missing only to resurface in Chinese custody.
The five went missing over the past half year, sparking fears in the West Chinese authorities were overriding the "one country, two systems" formula protecting Hong Kong's freedoms since its return to China from British rule in 1997.
China's Foreign Ministry has said its law enforcement officials would never do anything illegal, especially not overseas, and called on foreign governments not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.
The Post has also reported freely on anti-Beijing street protests in Hong Kong and the city's annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, a subject considered taboo in mainland China.
China's influential state-backed tabloid Global Times published an article on Friday saying that while China was exploring a wider public discourse, particularly on the internet, limits to free speech were narrower in China than in the West.
The apparent blocking of the Post accounts comes during the roughly two-week annual National People's Congress parliamentary session in Beijing, which has traditionally been a politically sensitive time.
The Weibo social media account of the Post shows a message saying: "Sorry, there's an error with the account you're trying to visit and it is temporarily unavailable."
A search for the Post's WeChat account doesn't produce any results but scanning a QR code leads to a page that says: "Features for this blocked account not available."
The newspaper's website has a message saying it is not available.
The Post has not reported that it has been blocked and spokesman Michael Chu did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Thursday and Friday. A spokesman for Weibo Corp declined to comment, as did Tencent Holdings Ltd, the company that owns WeChat.
It was not immediately clear when the Post block began or why the newspaper was being blocked. Local media said the block began this week.
The Post has been blocked before, including during Hong Kong's pro-democracy "Occupy" protests in 2014. Foreign media including Reuters, the New York Times and Bloomberg are routinely blocked in mainland China.
In December, Jack Ma's Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd said it would buy the Post, raising concerns about its editorial independence.
Alibaba Executive Vice Chairman Joe Tsai at the time dismissed suggestions that Alibaba would compromise the newspaper's editorial independence, but added the world needed "a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage".
The Alibaba deal will be put to Post shareholders next week.
(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Clare Baldwin in HONG KONG; Editing by Nick Macfie)