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International media watchdog digs into the ‘great leap backwards’ of journalism in China

Image from RSF’s press release.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a prominent international press freedom watchdog, released its latest report on China, “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China,” on December 7.

The report notes that at least 127 reporters are currently detained in China and describes the nation as “the world’s largest prison for journalists.” It presents an extensive account of how China has repressed freedom of expression and the right to information in recent years. In the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index, China ranks 177th out of 180, only two spots above North Korea. 

In the foreword of the 82-page report, Christophe Delorie, the secretary-general of RSF describes the Chinese censorship and repression model as “terrifying”:

…[it] is all the more terrifying given that the regime has immense financial and technological resources to achieve its goals… the “Great Firewall”, keeps China’s one billion internet users further away from the world while an army of censors scrutinises private messaging, looking for alleged subversive content. In the near future, the ubiquity of surveillance technologies based on facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and social credit threatens to make the confidentiality of journalists’ sources illusory.

Repressive tools and tactics

The report examines a list of tools and tactics employed by the Chinese regime in suppressing information freedom:

    1. The Great Firewall: a content blocking system to stop “sensitive information” from entering the domestic network.
    2. The Internet’s prying eyes: surveillance technology used to monitor group chats and private messages across domestic social media platforms.
    3. An army of trolls: a massive number of paid or voluntary online censors who report sensitive content, spread nationalistic narratives, and launch attacks against dissents.
    4. Residential surveillance at a designated location: a euphemism used by the Chinese regime for the arbitrary detention of dissidents including independent journalists in the so-called “black prisons”, a network of extralegal detention centres established by Chinese security police force and its subcontractors across the country.  
    5. The National Security Law (in Hong Kong): a law introduced in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, vaguely defines “terrorism,” “secession,” “sedition,” and “colluding with foreign forces,” which has allowed the government to indiscriminately investigate and arrest citizens. Since the law came into effect, Apple Daily, Hong Kong's oldest pro-democracy news source was shuttered and numerous journalists have been arrested.
    6. A “tea time” invitation: another euphemism used by the regime for interrogations and intimidation targetting dissents and journalists.
    7. The smartphone application “Study Xi, Strengthen the nation“: since 2019, Chinese journalists have been forced to download the app, which reportedly allows external parties to execute commands and collect personal information without the user’s knowledge. The application is initially designed for members of the Chinese Communist Party and civil servants to study the policies, theories and ideas of Chinese President Xi Jinping. 
    8. The Party’s daily instructions: As part of ideological control, the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party hands down daily censorship guidelines, news story frameworks, and propaganda to all state and party-affiliated media outlets. 
    9. Forced TV confessions: political dissidents and journalists are sometimes forced to “confess” their alleged crimes on state TV. Since 2013, there have been 93 forced TV confessions, including 30 journalists and media workers, according to Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO based in the European Union.

“The world's biggest prison for journalists”

The report said that these tactics have resulted in “a proliferation of red lines” to the extent that all topics, including issues related to health such as the COVID-19 outbreak, are considered national security threats.

RSF describes the Chinese propaganda authority's control over newsrooms and the independent media sector, including citizen journalists and bloggers, as a “war” on investigative journalism. Three legal means including “espionage,” “subversion,” or “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” are frequently used to prosecute independent journalists and writers.

At least 127 journalists are currently detained in China. The report highlights that among the journalist prisoners, 71 are Uyghur and at least 10 are at risk of dying due to heavy jail sentences. 

Foreign correspondents have also become targets in the clampdown. According to the report, at least 18 foreign journalists have had their visas revoked and been forced to leave China. Haze Fan, a news assistant from Bloomberg was arrested in December 2020 for allegedly “endangering national security” and currently remains in detention.

“Hong Kong: Press Freedom in Free Fall”

The report dedicates a section, “Hong Kong: Press Freedom in Free Fall,” on how the National Security Law (NSL) has impacted press freedom. According to the report, at least 12 journalists and media workers, including Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai and six of the papers’ editors, as well as former journalists Gwyneth Ho and Claudia Mo (also an ex-legislator), have “fallen victim” to the NSL. 

In addition to the dismantling of Apple Daily in June 2021, RSF points out that other media outlets including the city’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), are under political and censorship pressures that come either directly from the management or indirectly from the public criticisms from government officials — including the Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The report also mentions that Hong Kong has rejected a number of foreign journalists’ visa applications since 2018. The three most well-known cases are Chris Buckley from the New York Times, Aaron Nicholas from the Hong Kong Free Press, and Sue-Lin Wong from the Economist. 

The alarming trend of AI repression

RSF also emphasizes an alarming trend where advanced technology is being used for repression:

Beijing is taking advantage of the latest technological breakthroughs to tighten its control over information and to monitor the flow of opinion, sketching out a dystopian project for a society in which no conversation is beyond the reach of the prying eyes of the Party…

The repressive technologies mentioned in the report include an AI text censor system that can learn and adapt to changes in users’ language, the Sharp Eyes mass surveillance programme that applies facial recognition technology in more than 200 million cameras installed across the country, and spy wares and programs such as the “Study Xi, Strengthen China” mobile phone app. It also noted the questionable social credit system that ranks the trustworthiness of a citizen and their rights to access public and private services according to their online behavior, as well as the development of “smart police,” a crime prediction AI program.

RSF explains that such trends are daunting as many domestic technology companies are working closely with the Chinese authorities to establish and improve repressive systems.

Beyond the Chinese border

Another worrying trend is the exportation of China’s media model and political propaganda. The report points to the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN) and Belt and Road News Alliance (BRNA) as two major initiatives for exporting China’s media model to developing countries and China’s state-owned media outlets including China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International, and English China Daily which are extending China’s political model and influence overseas.

In addition to China state-funded initiatives, the report said the acquisition of foreign-owned media outlets and networks, the control of Chinese diaspora through WeChat, and coordinated information campaigns launched by nationalistic trolls, commonly called “Little Pinks,” are other means for spreading Chinese propaganda overseas. One example mentioned in the report is a propaganda campaign that involves more than 3,000 “strikingly similar” YouTube videos portraying a positive version of Uyghur people’s lives in Xinjiang.

At the end of the report, RSF urged democracies to establish an international system of reciprocity based on the universal principles of freedom of expression:

RSF called on democracies to guarantee equal treatment in the media market by ensuring that all media, whatever their country of origin and broadcasting channel (satellite, digital, etc.) are subjected to the same obligations, obligations concerning, in particular, the honesty, independence, and pluralism of information and respect for human dignity under penalty of sanction which may go as far as refusal or withdrawal of the authorisation to broadcast. 

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