Credit: AFP/Fred Dufour

Propaganda, censorship, surveillance, intimidation, detention without trial, sabotage of the internet, brutality in the field, and televised “confessions” were its ammunition.  

Press freedom in China, Hong Kong and Macau deteriorated further in 2015, as the Communist Party of China used every means at its disposal to control the media. Its ultimate target, as always, was to preserve its power in the mainland, extend its influence over Hong Kong and Macau, and tightly manage perceptions of its relationship with Taiwan. The law, the administration, the bureaucracy and the government-owned media were its weapons. Propaganda, censorship, surveillance, intimidation, detention without trial, sabotage of the internet, brutality in the field, and televised “confessions” were its ammunition. The result was that 1.3 billion people – close to 20 per cent of the world’s population – were denied their full rights to information, free expression and a free press. The outlook for 2016 is even worse, as the Communist Party prepares to pass more oppressive laws in the mainland. As Hong Kong goes to elections next year the party is also using its considerable wealth to consolidate its influence over the region.

China’s constitution guarantees human rights in accordance with international standards, including the right to a free press, but these protections are routinely ignored. The laws built upon this foundation both violate those rights and distort the legal process so that the rule of law is compromised and there is almost no government accountability. 2015’s the new National Security Law is full of vague definitions and requires Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to maintain China’s “national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The controversial anti-terrorism law was passed unanimously by the National People Congress, despite international criticisms of the law, which is full of vague definitions and states that no persons or news media are allowed to report on terrorist activities attack unless they received a pre-approval from the counter-terrorism agency. Telecommunications and internet providers also have to "provide technical support and assistance including decryption". The Criminal Law was amended to introduce severe punishments for people involved in the internet coverage of matters of public importance, such as disasters, epidemics or security alerts. New laws under discussion – the draft Cyber Security Law, draft Overseas Non-Governmental Organisations Management Law– are all designed to strengthen the powers of the party.

They were often ordered to republish articles produced by state-owned media, such as Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily, and forbidden to do independent reporting or reproduce original accounts or images generated by citizen journalists on social media. 

Decision-making at the level of editorial management was controlled through direct and self-censorship. Editors were instructed on the “line to take” on historical events and political and economic policies, and told what not to publish through a stream of restrictive orders. They were often ordered to republish articles produced by state-owned media, such as Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily, and forbidden to do independent reporting or reproduce original accounts or images generated by citizen journalists on social media. Reports from foreign media, particularly those on corruption in the leadership elite, were banned. On sensitive issues editors did not need to be told what news to suppress: they knew enough to censor their own content without external instruction. 

Journalists and crews in the field were hampered by physical harassment, especially when reporting on man-made disasters that showed the authorities had failed to ensure public safety. The local authorities declared wide exclusion zones around the sites of the tragedies, such as the capsize of a cruise liner on the Yangtze that killed 442 people, and gave favoured access to certain groups of journalists, while banning others. The release of information was delayed, press conferences were called late and some media were excluded. Reporters were detained, interrogated, roughed up by police, lenses were blocked, and memory cards were either confiscated or deleted. Police intimidated sources so that they refused to speak, incited local crowds to harass journalists and then stood by while they were attacked.

As well as struggling with all these restrictions, foreign journalists working on the mainland also faced bureaucratic delays in obtaining press cards and working visas, or lost the opportunity to cover other stories in the region because they had had surrendered their passports for processing. Most concerning was the refusal by the Government to renew a press card for a French journalist due to an article she published about human rights violations in Xinjiang. Two Japanese journalists were detained for espionage. A German journalist left the country after being accused of spying and her assistant was detained for eight months without charge. Many reported problems receiving permission to visit border and ethnic minority regions, and several were detained by police when they attempted to visit human rights activists being held under house arrest. Many correspondents had personal possessions confiscated when they left China, particularly books, maps, globes and DVDs that made reference to the status of Taiwan.

Credit: AFP/Ed Jones

Millions of messages and emails were deleted or blocked , and tens of thousands of websites and video channels were shut down for publishing “harmful messages”, discussing “sensitive topics” or disseminating “fake news”. 

Since the government cannot monopolize the internet or social media, it uses the law, surveillance, police powers and massive cyber muscle to prevent its citizens from enjoying free expression and access to information. The draft Cyber Security Law proposes to make it an offence to use encryption programs or publish anonymously. “Internet police stations” will be established for major websites and internet companies, and online monitoring is being carried out by an army of students recruited by the Chinese Communist Youth League. Internet service providers (ISPs) can be held liable for hosting information that “violates the constitution”, “subverts state power” or “damages China’s reputation”. 

Authorities launched massive cyber-attacks on international ISPs that provide access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which are used to get around China’s “Great Fire Wall” of internet controls. Millions of messages and emails were deleted or blocked , and tens of thousands of websites and video channels were shut down for publishing “harmful messages”, discussing “sensitive topics” or disseminating “fake news”. Bloggers, human rights activists and citizen journalists who could not be controlled by these means were detained and accused of “spreading rumours”, “inciting separatism”, “inciting ethnic hatred”, “disseminating false information”, “illegally obtaining personal information” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

Credit: Ming Pao Staff Association

When individual journalists did their jobs fearlessly, in defiance of these repressive measures, the government retaliated. 

Journalists in Hong Kong and Macau fought to report independently amid difficult conditions, as the mainland government and local business people set up pro-Beijing news websites to fill the gap left by struggling print media. The 2014 Occupy Movement joined the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on the list of historical events that could not be fully discussed or commemorated. Five publishing employees from of Mighty Current Publishing Ltd. and Causeway Bay Bookstore disappeared after the company published books that criticised the leadership of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.  One of them, Gui Minhai, a shareholder of the company,  was reportedly secretly detained in Thailand and taken to China.  Wife of Lee Bo, another of the disappeared, withdrew her missing person report after she reportedly received letters from Lee telling her he went to China on his own accord. Another worrying incident, Hong Kong University went to the High Court seeking injunctions to prevent the broadcast of speeches secretly recorded at a controversial meeting of the University Council.

When individual journalists did their jobs fearlessly, in defiance of these repressive measures, the government retaliated. Journalists were sacked, suspended, fined and forced to resign, or lost their livelihoods when their press passes were withdrawn. Still worse, journalists were subjected to administrative detention without trial or charged with vague offences and denied the right to proper legal representation and due process. One fled to India after being pressured into working as a spy for the government, and others were intimidated by threats to their family members. In the most shocking cases, journalists were forced to make “confessions” on national television, a punishment that shamed and defamed them before they could even go to trial.

Given these developments, it is not surprising that China slipped further to 176 out of 200 in the Reporters without Borders 2015 Press Freedom Index.

As China continues growing as an economic and diplomatic power we urge the government to recognise and respect the importance of a free press and free expression. We stand in solidarity with the journalists, bloggers, netizens and activists who persist in their essential work despite worsening conditions.  

Credit: AFP/Greg Baker

 

 

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