China Ranked 179th of 180 Countries for Journalism Conditions on World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, has rarely been a time for celebration in China, where restrictions on the media have kept the country near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Press Freedom Index for the past decade. This year’s newly-released ranking puts China 179th out of 180 countries, a slide of four places from the previous year. The report notes that Xi Jinping’s ongoing tenure has allowed him “to pursue the crusade against journalism he launched ten years ago,” and as a result “China is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and press freedom advocates.” Several recent events provide a snapshot of the deteriorating media landscape in China and Hong Kong. 

The dismal state of press freedom can be seen from an earlier report released by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in March, which included the following statistics showing the level of official obstruction, threats, and harassment towards foreign journalists:

63% of respondents experienced some kind of reporting obstruction nominally attributed to Covid-prevention measures, though those measures were not applied to ordinary Chinese citizens.

56% of respondents said they were obstructed at least once by police or other officials during 2022 (compared to 62% the previous year).

57% said they were visibly followed during reporting.

In 2022, 38% of respondents said at least one of their sources had been harassed, detained, called in for questioning by the authorities, or otherwise suffered negative consequences for interacting with foreign journalists, up from only a quarter last year.

45% of respondents said their Chinese colleague(s) were pressured, harassed, or intimidated at least once in 2022, up from 40% last year. [Source]

Chinese journalists have faced even worse conditions, including arbitrary detention and prosecution. Last week, several outlets reported that Dong Yuyu, a high-ranking, liberal-leaning editor at the Guangming Daily and former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, was accused of espionage by Chinese authorities. He was first arrested in February 2022 after meeting with a Japanese diplomat, and has remained in detention since then. He faces up to ten years in prison.

Last month, it was revealed that a man sentenced to seven years in prison in February for “inciting subversion of state power” was likely the legendary Chinese blogger “program-think.” He has been in detention since his arrest in May 2022. program-think, now apparently identified as Ruan Xiaohuan, wrote about a host of sensitive topics in the 12 years since he started blogging, which attracted a large following of dedicated readers.

Citizen-journalist Fang Bin was released this week after disappearing in February 2020 and spending three years in prison. He was one of several people who attempted to cover the early outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic from Wuhan, sharing videos of body bags outside hospitals and providing a rare glimpse into the city when official information was scarce. However, fellow citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan remains in detention after her arrest in May 2020. In December of that year, she was sentenced to four years in prison. Grace Tsoi from the BBC described Zhang’s situation in detention

“Maybe I have a rebellious soul… I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?” she said in an interview with an independent filmmaker that was obtained by the BBC.

Shortly after the arrest, she began a hunger strike and was sometimes force-fed as her weight plummeted to under 40kg (88lb), according to the Free Zhang Zhan group. It’s unclear if she is still on a hunger strike. Her family knows little about her condition.

Last December, her brother uploaded photos of a letter written by Ms Zhang in now-deleted tweets. She drew flowers on the envelope to reassure their mother, he said. [Source]

According to RSF, as of today the Chinese government is detaining 101 journalists, the most of any country. Among those still in detention is Haze Fan, a Bloomberg news assistant who was supposedly released on bail in early 2022 and is still awaiting trial. Her employer has been unable to contact her since her forced disappearance in December 2020. Huang Xueqin, a journalist and #MeToo activist, was reported in February to be suffering from severe health problems in her pre-trial detention that has lasted since September 2021, when she was forcibly disappeared alongside activist Wang Jiangbing. Australian-Chinese journalist Cheng Lei is also awaiting the outcome of her closed-door national security trial from last March, after her arrest in August 2020. Over a dozen more Chinese press freedom defenders are at risk of losing their lives in detention, according to RSF.

The government’s repression of press freedom extends beyond the mainland. Last week, authorities arrested Li Yanhe (whose pen name is Fu Cha), a Taiwan-based resident who founded Gusa Publishing, which published books critical of the CCP. Helen Davidson from The Guardian reported on the significance of Li’s arrest and its impact on publishers in the region:

The case has sent chills through the island’s community of booksellers and writers, echoing previous cases of Chinese authorities targeting writers and disseminators of critical or politically sensitive literature – Li was not even the only case this week. It also comes at a time of deepening authoritarianism in China, and escalating hostilities between Beijing and Taiwan.

Often, there is little to no detail of what those accused of endangering national security are supposed to have done. For Li, many assumed it relates to Gusa’s publishing of titles critical of the Chinese Communist party or discussing topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and party corruption.

[…Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller who was forcibly disappeared in 2015 and has since fled to Taiwan,] told the Guardian Li’s case served as a warning to the industry that “publishing these books is a risk”. [Source]

The press freedom situation in Hong Kong is equally bleak, as the National Security Law has gutted the city’s once-vibrant media environment. Just this week, Chief Executive John Lee chided a reporter for referring to the 2019 anti-government “protests” instead of “the black violence,” as the government attempts to erase the public’s memory of the movement. Many independent media outlets have closed, although a number of small-scale local Chinese-language outlets have survived. At the Hong Kong Free Press—one of the few larger independent English-language outlets that remain in the city—Candice Chau described how Hong Kong remains at a dismally low rank of 140 out of 180 countries on the RSF Press Freedom Index

[Cédric Alviani, the East Asia bureau director of RSF,] said that [Hong Kong’s low score on] the legal factor “should not come by surprise,” citing the trials against top editors of defunct media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News. He said that the watchdog recorded 13 “press freedom defenders” detained under “trumped up charges.”

Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison over a fraud case. His trial under the security law and the colonial-era sedition law – where he is accused of conspiring to collude with foreign forces and an offence linked to allegedly seditious publications – will resume in September.

Meanwhile, the sedition trial against two ex-top editors of Stand News – Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam – will resume in June for parties to submit closing arguments. The pair were remanded for close to a year before they were granted bail in November and December last year. [Source]

Lai’s case was the focus of a panel at the International Journalism Festival last month:

Many Tibetan and Uyghur journalists also remain in arbitrary detention, as government restrictions on free press continue to overlap with abusive policies targeting ethnic groups:

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