Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its annual Press Freedom Index, where it found the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to be one of the world’s most notorious persecutors of those who defend freedom of the press and freedom of information. RSF ranked the communist regime 177 out of 180 nations, with only Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea faring worse.
According to the Index, the Party threw 120 journalists in jail, holding them in conditions that RSF describes as posing “a threat to their lives.” The Index aired concerns of the CCP’s use of technology to install total control of speech and information in the country, “By making extensive use of the latest technology, President Xi Jinping has succeeded in imposing a social model based on the control of news and information and the surveillance of citizens.”
An emphasis of concern in the report was CCP narrative control around the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, which is likely to have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s only Biosecurity Level 4 laboratory, “The government has also tightened its grip on social networks, censoring many key words linked to coronavirus. The crackdown on foreign correspondents has been tightened with 16 being expelled since the start of the year.”
“The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), an agency personally supervised by Xi, has deployed a wide range of measures aimed at controlling the information accessible to China’s 989 million Internet users,” said the organization in a section dedicated to COVID-19 censorship and disinformation in the Asia Pacific region.
“Thanks to its massive use of new technology and an army of censors and trolls, Beijing manages to monitor and control the flow of information, spy on and censor citizens online, and spread its propaganda on social media. The regime is also expanding its influence abroad with the aim of imposing its narrative on international audiences and promoting its perverse equation of journalism with state.”
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The report also found that authoritarian regimes, much like the U.S.-based Big Tech cartel, were using the pandemic as an excuse to suppress “disinformation,” which basically includes any information that may contradict the centralized Communist Party narrative. Suppression of COVID-19 related information is something that was also observed in countries that were categorized with high ranking in the Index.
For instance, in Norway, which was awarded first place in the study, several reporters have complained that the state has blocked access to information about the pandemic. The Index was calculated after taking into consideration mob violence unleashed on journalists as well as state repression.
The Press Freedom Index, however, only mentioned only a few instances of Big Tech’s suppression of information and free speech.
For instance, Facebook’s attempted ban of Australian media after the federal government created legislation requiring large tech platforms to pay publishers for content was included in the report. However, it excludes mention of the ubiquitous suppression of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden expose by the Big Tech cartel during the 2020 Presidential Election.
RSF also praised Joe Biden for his “accountability and transparency,” even though his administration has been criticized for blocking reporters from visiting border areas amid the growing migrant crisis. The report also failed to detail disinformation repeatedly spread by legacy media outlets.
Pressuring foreign journalists
Foreign reporters are facing intense pressure from the CCP, making it difficult for them to carry out their work. Over the past year, journalists working in the country have been threatened, harassed, and expelled. In the first half of 2020, 18 journalists working for New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post were expelled. In September, reporters from Bloomberg, CNN, etc. were prevented from renewing their press credentials, according to a March 21 report released by International Press Institute.
Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who used to work for state-run propaganda tool CGTN, was arrested in February this year. Two other Australian media reporters fled the country to avoid persecution. John Sudworth, a BBC correspondent who has worked in China for 9 years, left the country along with his wife after threats intensified.
Josep Borrell, spokesperson for the EU foreign policy, condemned China’s attack on journalists.
“The EU has repeatedly expressed its concerns to the Chinese authorities at the undue working restrictions imposed on foreign journalists and reported related harassment,” said Borrell in a statement.
“Professionalism and objectivity of foreign correspondents is increasingly put into question…[The EU stands up] for the role of independent and reliable media all around the world…[China should] abide by its obligations under national and international law and ensure the freedom of speech and press.”
William Yang, a journalist who covers East Asian affairs, believes that China will tighten restrictions on foreign reporters even more in the coming years, adding that he believes press freedom and access for journalists to China will become “collateral damage,” and that Beijing will use access to credentials against foreign media. Yang says reporting on sensitive issues will become “increasingly difficult.”
Macau and Hong Kong
The CCP is also cracking down on press freedoms in Macau and Hong Kong. One of Macau’s largest broadcasters, Portuguese language media outlet TDM, has been asked to comply with CCP policies on media narratives. After a recent meeting where staff were told that new editorial rules require them to promote so-called “patriotism, respect, and love” for mainland China, at least six journalists resigned, according to Reuters.
Macau’s Portuguese media covered the 2019 Hong Kong protests extensively. Prior to the protests, Beijing praised Macau’s media. After covering the events, organizations began being investigated by the Communist Party.
“People supporting Hong Kong, that was not allowed. There is a sensitivity about Hong Kong… For them it was something big, how could they not cover it? Retrospectively, one could suspect that they went across the red line, they showed a bit too much independence,” Eric Sautede, a former Macau university professor, said to Reuters.
In Hong Kong, Beijing is pushing more loyal bureaucrats into the ranks of the city’s public broadcaster RTHK. Accused of having an anti-government bias, the outlet’s management is being filled with CCP supporters who have established red lines that reporters and writers are not allowed to cross.
Many staff members are self-censoring themselves to prevent their programs from getting canceled. One source told South China Morning Post that several employees were now living in “white terror,” and completely avoid interviewing controversial pro-democracy figures.
The broadcaster has been hit with a wave of program cancellations and resignations. The RTHK Programme Staff Union said the new management team has frozen promotions and new hires. Instead, it is focusing on the creation of new positions, which support the overhaul to broadcast CCP narrative.