Press freedom watchdog releases new report to highlight the “great leap backward” of press freedom in China

In a report released on Dec. 7, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) focuses on Beijing’s expanded crackdown on media and press freedom in China. The report’s author, Cedric Alviani, says the severity of punishments that journalists have to face is usually determined by the sensitivity of the topic that they are covering.

Press freedom watchdog RSF released a report titled “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China” on Tuesday, in which the author zeroes in on how the Chinese government launched an unprecedented campaign of repression against journalism and the right to information, and how Beijing expands its model of repression to Hong Kong.

According to its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, China ranks 177 among 180 countries, and so far 127 journalists are jailed by the Chinese regime, making it the country with the highest number of journalists put in jail.

In the report, RSF highlights how the Chinese government has increased its control over journalists since Chinese president Xi Jinping came to power. Many journalists were given lengthy jail sentences for investigating topics viewed as taboos or publishing censored information.

Due to the unsanitary conditions in jails, several journalists and press freedom defenders have died in prison. According to RSF, Kunchok Jinpa, a tour guide and key news source from the autonomous Chinese region of Tibet, died in 2021 as a result of ill-treatment in his detention.

Additionally, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and Chinese blogger Yang Tongyan both died in prison due to untreated cancer. “It’s not new that journalists in China could be in trouble for reporting,” said Cedric Alviani, Head of RSF’s East Asia Bureau in Taiwan and author of the report. “They would just be in trouble and they would probably keep working for the media and keep reporting.”

“Now, the situation has totally changed. Publishing one allegedly sensitive story could directly put the journalist in jail. It can directly lead to the shut down of the media and social media accounts,” he added.

Alviani points out that the biggest difference is that when journalists run into trouble now, they won’t receive many warnings and the punishment that they receive is often proportionate to the impact of the story that they published.

“Normally, a law provides a range of punishment depending on the crime that’s committed,” he said. “Now, it depends on the effect the story has created. We have seen these non-professional journalists receiving extremely harsh sentences for simply commenting on the news.”

According to RSF, the three most common crimes that the Chinese government uses to prosecute journalists or press freedom defenders are espionage, subversion and picking quarrels, and provoking trouble. So far, at least 10 pres freedom defenders are unable to be released and some are even facing the risk of dying in prison.

One of them is Zhang Zhan, the winner of the 2021 RSF Press Freedom Awards, who is serving a 4-year prison sentence for reporting on the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020. Her weight has reportedly dropped to below 40 kilograms and her family worries that she might die in prison due to her ongoing hunger strike.

Angeli Datt, the senior research analyst at Freedom House, says that since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese government has seen the power of journalism to expose government failures. “The entire world should be outraged over the treatment of Zhang Zhan, Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and other Chinese journalists who reported on the ground from Wuhan and were detained as a result,” she told DW.

Hong Kong: from a press freedom model to an example of forcing media outlets to shut down

RSF also focuses on the rapidly deteriorating state of press freedom in Hong Kong. The report points out that Hong Kong was once the champion of press freedom, but after decades of ongoing influence from Beijing, the semi-autonomous city has gone from 18 to 80 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index over the last 19 years.

“Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, targets symbols of press freedom such as public media group Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and turns a blind eye to repeated violence on journalists,” the report says.

“She also used the National Security Law, adopted by the Chinese regime in June 2020, as a pretext to shut down the territory’s largest Chinese-language opposition newspaper, Apple Daily, and to prosecute 12 journalists, ten of whom are still being detained,” the report added.

One of those prosecuted by authorities is Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, who was sentenced to 20 months in jail for allegedly participating in an unauthorized assembly.

Alviani says Hong Kong used to be a “positive exception” in China, as it gives Chinese people hope that journalism could be practiced by the rule in Hong Kong. However, the city has turned into “a model to destroy and remove media outlets.”

“Since the imposition of the National Security Law, the Chinese regime has been literally digesting Hong Kong, trying to gradually reduce freedom,” he said. “It started insidiously, but now they are not hiding anymore. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam basically said journalists are free to criticize the government but they should know when criticizing the government becomes something against the state.”

“ For journalists in Hong Kong, the only way to be 100% safe is not to comment and not to pass any information that is negative in the eyes of the Chinese government or the Hong Kong government,” he added.

Angeli Datt from Freedom House thinks that China is continuing to extend its model to Hong Kong by using it to dismantle opposition and silence Hong Kong’s historical free press. While the state of press freedom continues to deteriorate in the city, Datt thinks there are still pockets of resistance.

“We still are able to read coverage of events in HK that mainland media would never be able to cover,” she said. “It’s due to the resilience and perseverance of Hong Kong journalists trying to operate in the closing space.”

An attempt to upgrade its censorship regime

Apart from the ruthless crackdown on media outlets and journalists, RSF also highlights how the Chinese government is building a model of society in which access to information is no longer a right but a crime through unprecedented technological censorship and surveillance tools.

Citing data from Freedom House, the report suggests that around 11,000 Chinese websites and 737,000 social media accounts and group chats were shut down across China in 2019. Now, only certain official accounts and government-licensed news websites are allowed to disseminate information, especially about politics, economics, military, and foreign affairs, the report says.

And while the actual number of people working for the internet censorship apparatus in China remains unknown, RSF predicts that there are around 2 million people working in such functions, according to an official source from 2013.

“Under the pretext of fighting crime, the regime has developed ever more invasive technologies in recent years, such as the Sharp Eyes mass surveillance program, launched in 2015, which aims to equip the entire Chinese territory with facial recognition cameras, succeeding Sky Net’s video surveillance program,” the report says.

Alviani says that Chinese President Xi Jinping is strengthening his control over media and information through a very comprehensive plan. According to him, his government first attacked professional journalists because it was the easiest way to increase control of information. Then he shifted the target of his crackdown to citizen journalists after public and private media were placed under much tighter control.

“The last thing for the Chinese authorities to do is to basically ban mainstream and non-professional journalists from investigating or writing without a huge risk of punishment,” he said. “This practice is to make sure that there is nowhere for them to publish and their readers have no access to what they write.”

According to Alviani, Xi Jinping has been relying on this model to strengthen control over Chinese society. “Now, this is somehow the last piece of the puzzle,” he said. “If he manages to do that, basically the Great Firewall is preventing the Chinese people from accessing the information from within China.”

Angeli Datt thinks that the series of moves initiated by the Chinese government, including an intensified crackdown on websites and regulatory moves against tech companies to further censor shows how much more controlled that space will become.

“The restrictions online, ongoing censorship, and increased criminal penalties against key activists will frighten many into not speaking out and increase the nationalistic echo chamber,” she said.

Resistance remains in China’s civil society

Despite the increased effort to censor content, RSF still highlights some examples of Chinese citizens trying to bypass the government’s censorship regime. One of the examples is Chinese internet users’ innovative way to pay tribute to Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower of COVID19 who died after contracting the virus.

“Some posted selfies wearing masks with ‘I cannot’ and ‘I do not understand written on them, referring to Dr. Li’s reply to the police’s request to stop ‘spreading false rumors’ and understand the situation,” the report said.

Apart from that, netizens also used screenshots and translations in English, in Morse code, in braille, and even in emojis to try to save an article that denounced the censorship imposed on doctors published by Ren Wu magazine.

Alviani says that even though it has become harder for Chinese people to bypass the government’s censorship, Chinese people still try to find different ways to achieve the goal. He uses the incident involving Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai as an example, pointing out how Chinese netizens invent new keywords to bypass online censorship.

“It’s just like the #MeToo movement before, but The problem is that it’s wasting a lot of their energy, which should be used for discussing the future development of China,” he said.

According to Alviani, the stricter censorship regime has reduced the international community’s access to acquire information from within China, and he thinks the trend is a threat to both Chinese people and the whole world.

“We have seen throughout the COVID19 outbreak, censorship delayed for the authorities’ response for three weeks,” he said. “If the whistleblowers in China had been able to communicate with journalists, the pandemic may not have developed to the current scale.”

“Nowadays, nobody can say that things happening in China are only the problem of the Chinese people. We are in a global world and China has become one of the major powers. There is a risk that China will become a new black hole of information and not having consistent and up-to-date information on China is a threat for the whole world,” he added.

The piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.