An international media watchdog lambasted moves by several countries, including China, that reportedly use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to repress the media.
In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index released on April 20, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), revealed a correlation between press freedom violations and the coronavirus pandemic.
The group noted that the public health crisis “is being used by the worst-ranked countries to step up harassment and attacks on the media.”
RSF said China, which ranks 177th out of 180 countries in the annual global Press Freedom Index, has “failed to learn coronavirus lessons and further tightens censorship.”
The group said China “does not appear willing to learn the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, whose spread was facilitated by censorship and pressure on whistle-blowers.”
“Worse still, Beijing has used the crisis to further tighten its control of the media, banning the publication of any reports that question how it has been managed,” the report added.
The report said that by making extensive use of the latest technology, the Chinese government “succeeded in imposing a social model based on the control of news and information and the surveillance of citizens.”
The media watchdog said that at least three journalists and three political commentators have been arrested in China in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.
“The government has also tightened its grip on social networks, censoring many key words linked to coronavirus,” it added.
RFS said a crackdown on foreign correspondents in China has been tightened with 16 reporters being expelled since the start of the year.
The group also warned against the impact on press freedom of China’s alleged global campaign of misinformation in response to the pandemic.
RSF said China has been actively campaigning “to drown out critics” who blame the country for the spread of the virus in the context of Beijing’s censorship of early warnings that hindered other nations to adopt necessary public health measures.
“On the pretext of ‘setting the record straight’ about the coronavirus, Beijing is pumping out lies and imprecisions designed to discredit journalists’ work and sow doubt about what they are reporting,” said Cédric Alviani, RSF East Asia bureau chief.
“It is important that the public is not taken in by the Chinese propaganda and gives preference to reporting by media outlets that respect journalistic principles,” said Alviani.
The next ten years “will be pivotal for press freedom because of converging crises affecting the future of journalism,” said the media watchdog.
RSF said the pandemic is “highlighting and amplifying” the geopolitical crisis “due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes.”
“We are entering a decisive decade for journalism linked to crises that affect its future,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the organization.
He said the pandemic “illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor.”
RSF saw the “greatest rise in press freedom violations” in the Asia-Pacific region, citing Singapore, which ranked 158th in Index, because of its “Orwellian fake news law.”
Hong Kong fell seven places in the Index because of its treatment of journalists during pro-democracy demonstrations.
The media watchdog also noted how the pandemic “highlighted the main elements of the authoritarian course taken by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.”
RDF noted how the president often threatens journalists who do not follow the official line with death, and even branding them as “sons of bitches.”