BEIJING - China's ruling Communist Party is launching a new crackdown on popular instant messaging platforms including Tencent's WeChat, state media said Wednesday, the latest in a series of moves to stifle online speech.
The month-long campaign follows a similar clampdown last year on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service whose popularity has been hit as China's censors have tightened their grip.
It also comes amid a string of violent attacks that Beijing has blamed on separatists from the mainly Muslim far-western region of Xinjiang, and ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings.
Tencent's WeChat is an instant messaging platform that allows users to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over mobile devices.
It has more than twice as many monthly active users, 396 million, than Sina Weibo on 143.8 million, but most WeChat users send their messages privately rather than sharing them publicly.
Now the growing popularity of group chats -- through which WeChat users can share messages with up to 500 participants -- has drawn the attention of authorities, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.
Such chats have "become a challenge for the spreading of rumours and other harmful content", the paper reported, citing an official from China's State Internet Information Office (SIIO).
The new crackdown will target public WeChat accounts "spreading rumours and information relating to violence, terrorism and pornography, as well as those using instant messaging for fraud", the official Xinhua news agency said, citing an SIIO statement.
Those charged face a maximum of 20 years in jail if convicted.