China has fallen once again in world press freedom rankings, following a year marked by crackdowns around the world, the Paris-based press monitor Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in an annual report.
"Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes," the group said in a statement on its website as it released its 10th annual press freedom index.
"The past year also highlighted the leading role played by netizens in producing and disseminating news," RSF said. "Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011."
At the bottom of the index were Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea, which RSF described as "absolute dictatorships that permit no civil liberties."
"This year, they are immediately preceded at the bottom by Syria, Iran, and China, three countries that seem to have lost contact with reality as they have been sucked into an insane spiral of terror," it said.
"Dictatorships fear and ban information, especially when it may undermine them."
China came 174th on the index in 2011, compared with 171st in 2010 and 168th in 2009.
The 'right to protest'
Hangzhou-based rights activist Chen Shuqing said the 'Jasmine' uprisings of the Arab Spring had resulted in a huge crackdown on both activists and independent media professionals, including netizens and citizen journalists.
He cited the example of veteran pro-democracy activist Zhu Yufu, who is awaiting trial on subversion charges after he posted a poem online calling on his fellow Chinese to take to the streets in peaceful protest.
"The poem called on citizens to take to the streets ... and the right to demonstrate or protest against the government is enshrined in Clause 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China," he said.
"[This ensures] the freedom of expression, of publication, of association, and demonstration," Chen said.
New York-based rights activist Liu Qing said China's ruling Communist Party had stepped up controls of all kinds in the past year.
"The Party itself admits that there are hundreds of thousands of so-called mass incidents every year," Liu said. "These incidents are developing into something more serious."
He cited recent successful protests in Guangdong's rebel village of Wukan, where residents fought off armed police at the barricades after protesting against corruption in their local government linked to the sale of their farmland.
"This was an organized rebellion," Liu said. "The villagers themselves elected someone to lead them ... and fierce protests involving more than 10,000 people are emerging all the time in Guangdong," he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual report last month that the renewed crackdown on political activists had been accompanied by tightened media controls and a bleaker climate for freedom of expression.
The group detailed the cases of 34 Chinese journalists jailed during 2011 on charges ranging from "incitement to subversion" to "revealing state secrets."
While investigative journalism in China has gained strength in recent years, a strict censorship system aimed at rooting out information deemed a threat to the ruling Communist Party has kept pace, the group said.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.