Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said China continues to censor, monitor and propagate the internet at an “unprecedented” level, making it one of the worst countries in the world for journalists.
In its annual press freedom index, released Tuesday, the global watchdog also highlighted the increase in repression and attacks on journalists around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The index measures press freedom in 180 countries and territories, and the RSF says its data shows that the press is “completely blocked or severely obstructed” in nearly three-quarters. is assessed, making it harder for people to access relevant information at health emergencies.
Outside of China, the bottom four countries on the chart are Djibouti, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.
Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Costa Rica are ranked highest for press freedom.
“The press is the best medicine against misinformation,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement accompanying the report.
“To deal with the spread of cross-border disinformation, across digital platforms and through social media, the press provides the most effective means of ensuring that debate. of the public is based on a series of established events. ”
However, Deloire says that the production and distribution of information “is often hampered by political, economic, technological and sometimes cultural factors”.
‘The biggest prison guard’
By 2021, China continues to be “the most imprisoned defenders of press freedom,” the RSF said, with more than 120 people currently detained in the country, “regularly under threat. life threatening ”.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, the Chinese authorities have tightened the news and information, with seven journalists still held to cover the pandemic. Lawyer and journalist Zhang Zhan was among those who were sentenced to prison.
In December, she was found guilty of “quarreling and causing trouble” for reporting a pandemic in Wuhan, where a new virus was discovered for the first time.
In addition, more than 450 social media users in China were briefly arrested for sharing “false rumors” about the virus, RSF said.
The RSF said Chinese authorities have also stepped up harassing foreign journalists, citing a March report by China’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The report said at least 18 foreign reporters were expelled in the first half of 2020, while BBC broadcasts were banned.
The RSF said Internet censorship in China has also reached “unprecedented” levels in recent years, with “an army of censors” deployed under President Xi Jinping to target almost 989 million. internet users of the country.
Censors shut down websites, block access to IP addresses, filter websites and even block keywords on social media. In an earlier report from March, the RSF said the China Cyber Administration (CAC) closed nearly 130,000 social media accounts and more than 12,000 websites between January and September 2020.
The RSF continued to criticize China for the imposition of national security laws in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, saying the act “seriously threatens journalists”. It notes that Jimmy Lai, the founder of pro-democracy Apple Daily, has been arrested and charged under security law and is currently facing a life sentence.
Strongest drop ranking
The furthest down country in the RSF rankings was Malaysia, which fell 18 places to 119. Part of the reason was due to the government’s issuance of an “anti-fake news” emergency decree in March, which the authorities deemed necessary to combat false information. pandemic COVID-19.
Under the decree issued under emergency jurisdiction, those convicted of publishing “fake news” will face fines of up to 100,000 Malaysian ringgit ($ 24,000) and / or three years in prison.
But human rights groups say the ordinance does not set standards for determining what is wrong, increasing the risk that it could be used to silence criticism or other speeches that the government does not. prefer.
The RSF, in a statement at the time of the decree, said “the decree makes the dissemination of information directly dependent on the goodwill of the authorities – the police or the judiciary”. It notes that the Malaysian authorities last year refused to extend work visas for two Australians working for Al Jazeera, Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson, as they made a documentary about the wave of arrests. migrant workers during the pandemic.
Worldwide, the index data reflects “a serious decline in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to reporting,” said the RSF.
“Pandemic coronavirus has been used as a basis to prevent journalists from accessing information sources and reporting in the field. Will this access be restored when the pandemic ends? ”It asked.
The watchdog also expressed concern about diminished trust in the press, noting that the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer revealed “the extent of public concern for journalists”. The survey found that 59% of respondents in 28 countries said that journalists deliberately misled the public by reporting they knew it was false.
However, “in practice, the press pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat misinformation and ‘infectious diseases’, including false and misleading information,” said the RSF.
Overall, the watchdog says global press freedom has fallen 12% since the rankings were created in 2013.