Irony upon ironies: China banned state media from reporting on the country’s rank in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index before the list was released by Reporters Without Borders.
The index measures the freedom of information and journalists of 180 countries around the world. With only five countries listed as having less freedom than the Middle Kingdom, China’s State Council Information Office issued the following directive on February 11th:
“All websites are kindly asked to delete the article ‘180 Countries Ranked in 2014 Press Freedom Index; China at 175th’ and related content.”
Authorities were apparently alerted of the list through an email RWB sent under embargo. The Information Office immediately responded and delivered the directive a day before the index was formally released, Benjamin Ismail, head of the RWB Asia-Pacific desk, said.
“In the end, it’s about a regime that is willing to go very far in terms of control of information to maintain itself,” he said in an email. “It’s a matter of survival for the Communist party.”
China fell two places from its 2013 ranking, and is listed just above North Korea—a country that deleted almost its entire news archive in December 2013—Turkmenistan and Eritea, which were all described as “news and information black holes and living hells for the journalists who inhabit them.”
Despite having a dynamic and increasingly militant blogosphere, China’s low ranking is attributed to its tendency to jail and censor dissident bloggers and journalists.
“Journalists and bloggers are victim of repercussions for their work on a daily basis, or are threatened in order not to carry on their work,” Ismail said. “The foreign press is also more and more targeted, with a lot of coercive measures and dissuasion maneuvers.”
In 2013, 30 Chinese journalists and 70 netizens were issued long jail sentences for “subversion,” “fraud” or “divulging state secrets.” Victims are often held in harsh conditions and sometimes end up in forced labor camps—although such ideological sites were banned earlier this year, according to reportage by the Wall Street Journal.
For foreign journalists, Tibet, Xinjiang and social issues such as the HIV blood harvesting scandal, government dissidents and the Falun Gong movement are the most sensitive topics, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
Cyril Payen, a French journalist who illegally entered Tibet in Spring 2013, serves as an example to the stress placed on foreign journalists in China, Ismail said. Payen produced a documentary titled “Seven Days in Tibet,” which reported on the Chinese repression of the Tibetan minority and aired at France 24 TV station on May 30.
Immediately after “Seven Days” was released, Payen received a number of phone calls, voicemails and texts from the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, the city where he was staying. Diplomats said they wanted to meet inside the Chinese embassy to discuss his documentary. After continually postponing the meetings, Payen received the following message via voicemail:
“I just want to tell you that the purpose of the meeting is to listen to your explanation of why you cheated a Chinese visa and why you reported the news in a distorted way. However, since you postponed the meeting again and again, I’m afraid if you cannot manage to meet tomorrow, you’ll have to take all the possible responsibilities,” a female diplomat said.
Payen’s story highlights the pressure placed on foreign journalists in China, but also the country’s ability to influence regions beyond its borders.
In a section titled “Chinese Big Brother Is Watching, And Exporting Its Methods,” the report described China’s economic influence on media in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Tycoons who have business ties to Beijing own many of the main media outlets in these areas, and are apparently influenced by these economic relationships.
“We would really hope more governments—some already do—come to us to ask how to improve their rank,” Ismail said.
The index factors the number of media people jailed, killed, abducted or fled into exile. Chinese NGO’s, RWB correspondents and foreign journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists were questioned about pluralism, the media’s independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and the quality of the infrastructure that supported news production in China.
The report also specified that the Middle Kingdom’s ranking should not be taken as an indicator of the country’s media quality.
Nona Tepper is a independent reporter based in China.