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‘The Great Leap Backwards’: New Report Slams the State of Journalism in China

Published: December 8, 2021
HONG KONG, CHINA - JUNE 24: An employee holds up the latest copies of the Apple Daily newspaper outside at the offices on June 24, 2021 in Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper announced it would be printing its final issue on Thursday after its offices were raided last week over allegations that reports had breached a controversial national security law. (Image: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

A new report, published on Dec. 7 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) titled, “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China” shines a light on the rapidly diminishing press freedoms in China and reveals “the extent of the regime’s campaign of repression against the right to information” while placing accountability for the decline directly at the feet of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

The damning, 82 page report,  documents and demonstrates “the acceleration of China’s violations against its own international commitments to freedom of opinion and expression,” and focuses on the deterioration of press freedoms in Hong Kong which “was once a model of press freedom but now has an increasing number of journalists arrested in the name of national security.”

At least 127 journalists jailed

The report reveals that at least 127 journalists, both professional and non-professional, are currently detained in China for the simple act of investigating “sensitive” topics or publishing censored information. Many of the detained are facing lengthy prison sentences in unsanitary prisons, “where ill-treatment can lead to death.”

Citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, 38, is a prime example of the CCP’s crackdown on journalists. Zhang was sentenced in late 2020 to four years in prison after reporting on Wuhan’s early handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A former lawyer, she was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” for posting a series of videos to social media, over a three month period, that documented how the pandemic had affected the everyday life of people living in Wuhan. 

Her family recently told Agence France-Presse that she “may not live much longer” after Zhang began a hunger strike in protest of her incarceration. She is reportedly being force-fed through feeding tubes and was hospitalized in July 2021 for malnutrition. 

The report also accuses Chinese authorities of forcing journalists to become a “mouthpiece” for the CCP.

It explains how domestic journalists are forced to undergo a grueling 90-hour annual training which, in large part, focuses on Xi Jinping’s “thought” while forcing journalists to download a propaganda application called “Study Xi, Strengthen the Country” that, in addition to influencing their reporting, also collects their personal information. 

Foreign journalists unwelcome

According to the report, foreign correspondents face surveillance and visa blackmail by authorities when attempting to report on issues in China. The intimidation forced 18 journalists to leave the country in 2020. Three foreign journalists of Chinese descent, Gui Minhai, Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei are currently being detained on bogus espionage charges by the regime.

New surveillance systems, utilizing facial recognition technology, are being implemented with the sole purpose of tracking journalists and other people the regime deems “suspicious people.”

The province of Henan recently tendered a project that would see thousands of new cameras installed in public places that will be manned by an estimated 2,000 officials and policemen with the sole purpose of tracking journalists and international students.

READ MORE: New Chinese Surveillance System Will Monitor Journalists and International Students

Private Chinese citizens appear to be eager to assist the regime in implementing practices that suppress press freedoms.

In August, in the wake of historic flooding in the city of Zhengzhou in Henan province, journalists from the Los Angeles Times and German outlet Deutsche Welle were confronted by an angry crowd, who filmed and questioned them, and accused them of “rumour mongering” and slandering China. 

Alice Su, Beijing Bureau Chief for the L.A. Times was reportedly harassed while covering the deadly floods alongside Deutsche Welle journalist Mathias Bölinger. 

At the time Su tweeted, “On the ground in Henan, we saw a complex mix of grief and nationalism, catastrophe and propaganda – paranoia at ‘foreign smearing’ from some, courageous demands for accountability from others.” 

Hong Kong journalists and the National Security Law

The National Security Law (NSL) imposed on the people of Hong Kong in June 2020 has been the primary tool wielded by authorities to suppress press freedoms. 

The deliberately vague and draconian legislation “has served as a pretext for the repression of at least 12 journalists and press freedom defenders, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, all of whom risk life sentences,” the report states.

In June 2021, the offices of the now shuttered independent news outlet Apple Daily were raided by an estimated 400 police officers in what was described as a “blatant attack” on the paper’s editorial team. 

READ MORE: Apple Daily Raided by Hong Kong Police; Several Arrested Under ‘National Security Law’

At the time, the paper was accused of publishing over 30 pieces, both in print and digitally, that authorities deemed “questionable articles” that played a “crucial part in the conspiracy,” to undermine China’s national security and several members of the editorial staff were subsequently arrested.

CGTN weaponized to push propaganda around the world

China’s media influence and propaganda is not contained by its borders. The report demonstrates that the “Chinese state-owned audiovisual group CGTN continues to broadcast regime propaganda worldwide.”

The report states that “over the last decade, China has invested massively in developing media capable of reaching an international public. And it has succeeded: State-owned CGTN broadcasts TV programs in more than 160 countries, and China Radio International broadcasts in 44 languages.”

Of the six television channels CGTN owns and operates five of them are 24-hour news channels that impose the “China story” in accordance with the narrative promoted by President Xi Jinping and his “thought.”

China’s aggression in this sphere prompted the British communications regulatory authority (OFcom) to revoke the broadcasting license of CGTN earlier this year. The regulatory authority justified the decision on the grounds that the group and its programs are “ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” CGTN was fined US$570,000 for four “serious and repeated breaches” of the regulatory bodies rules. 

According to the report, “The People’s Republic of China ranked 177th out of 180 in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index, only two spots above North Korea. Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom, has slipped from 18th place, upon the index’s creation in 2002, to 80th place in 2021.”

RSF’s report is scheduled to be published in multiple other languages ten days before the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in early 2022.