China continues to take Internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to “unprecedented levels,” said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), making it one of the worst countries in the world for journalists.
In its annual press freedom index, released on Tuesday, the global watchdog also highlighted an increase in repression and attacks on journalists around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The index assesses the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories, and RSF said its data showed journalism is “totally blocked or seriously hampered” in nearly three-quarters of the countries assessed, making it even more more difficult for people to access appropriate information at the time of a health emergency.
Aside from China, the bottom four countries are Djibouti, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.
Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Costa Rica were top ranked for press freedom.
“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire said in a statement accompanying the report.
“In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism is the most effective way to ensure that public debate is based on a wide range of established facts.”
However, Deloire said that the production and dissemination of information “is too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors”.
‘The greatest jailer’
As of 2021, China remained the “largest jailer of press freedom defenders in the world,” said RSF, with more than 120 currently detained in the country, “often in life-threatening conditions.”
Since the emergence of COVID-19, Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on news and information, with seven journalists still being held for their coverage of the pandemic. Lawyer-turned-journalist Zhang Zhan is among the detainees.
She was convicted in December of “picking up feuds and causing unrest” for her reporting on the pandemic in Wuhan, where the new virus was first detected.
In addition, more than 450 social media users in China were briefly arrested for sharing “false rumors” about the virus, RSF said.
Chinese authorities have also stepped up harassment of foreign correspondents, RSF said, citing a March report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. The report says at least 18 foreign correspondents were expelled in the first half of 2020, while BBC broadcasting was banned.
Internet censorship in China has also reached “unprecedented levels” in recent years, RSF said, with “an army of censors” deployed under President Xi Jinping to target nearly 989 million Internet users nationwide. .
Censors shut down websites, block access to IP addresses, filter web pages, and even block keywords on social media. In a previous March report, RSF said the Chinese Cyberspace Administration (CAC) closed nearly 130,000 social media accounts and more than 12,000 websites between January and September 2020.
RSF then criticized China for imposing a national security law on semi-autonomous Hong Kong, saying the legislation “seriously threatens journalists.” He noted that Jimmy Lai, the founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, has been arrested and charged under the Security Act and now faces a life sentence.
The biggest drop in ranking
The country that has fallen the most in RSF’s rankings is Malaysia, which has dropped 18 places to 119. This is in part due to the government’s introduction in March of an emergency “anti-fake” decree. news, ”which authorities said was necessary to tackle disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the decree, issued under emergency powers, those found guilty of publishing “fake news” face a fine of up to 100,000 Malaysian ringgits ($ 24,000) and / or three. years in prison.
But human rights groups say the decree does not set standards for determining what is wrong, increasing the risk that it could be used to silence critics or other rhetoric that the government does not. ‘do not like.
RSF, in a statement at the time of publication of the decree, said that “the ordinance subjects the dissemination of information directly to the goodwill of the authorities – police or judicial”. He noted that Malaysian authorities last year refused to renew work visas for two Australians who worked for Al Jazeera, Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson, because they had worked on a documentary about a wave of arrests of migrant workers during the pandemic.
Around the world, according to RSF, the index data reflect “a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage.”
“The coronavirus pandemic has been used as a motive to block journalists’ access to news sources and reports on the ground. Will this access be restored once the pandemic is over? ” he asked.
The watchdog also expressed concern over declining press confidence, noting that the Edelman Trust 2021 barometer revealed “a worrying level of public distrust of journalists.” The survey found that 59% of those polled in 28 countries said journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false.
But, “in reality, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and ‘infodemics’, including false and misleading information,” said RSF.
Overall, according to the watchdog, the level of press freedom around the world has deteriorated by 12% since the ranking was created in 2013.