China has one of the world's worst records on press freedom, with controls on state-run media and netizens showing no signs of abating, according to a new report Wednesday by Paris-based global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
China came in 173rd, seven places from bottom, up one place from last year compared to other countries, but RSF said it is "the world's biggest prison for Internet users," as the authorities step up the pressure on netizens over what they can see and what they can say online.
"Its prisons still hold many journalists and netizens, while increasingly unpopular Internet censorship continues to be a major obstacle to access to information," RSF said in its annual report published on its website.
By comparison, secretive North Korea came 178th, while Vietnam ranked 172nd in the 2013 Index of Press Freedom, outranked by Laos in 168th spot.
Anhui-based democracy activist Zhang Lin said he felt the pressure on political and human rights activist in China had barely let up since the once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party last November.
He said a dispute over heavy-handed government censorship of the New Year editorial in the Southern Weekend newspaper—which sparked protests after it announced a strike over political censorship—had shown the authorities were far from willing to let up on the media.
"There remains a strict system for regulating the traditional media, particularly newspapers, TV, and radio programs," Zhang said. "They still delete Internet posts wholesale."
Zhang said the authorities also used threatening tactics to suppress and discourage those with dissenting political views.
"They call in large numbers of democracy activists and rights activists to 'drink tea'," he said, using a euphemism for questioning by the authorities.
Zhang said he would be summoned to 'drink tea' with state security police if he so much as spoke to a foreign media journalist.
"So I think overall that [RSF's] appraisal is accurate," he said.
Wu Bin, a Zhejiang-based press freedom activist known online by his nickname "Xiucai Jianghu" agreed.
"China has no news; it only has propaganda," Wu said. "They will cover up heaven and earth in their reports."
"The news is used in the service of politics, not the truth," he said.
Wu said his account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo had been closed after he voiced online support for the Southern Weekend.
"Account closures happen all the time," he added.
Elsewhere in Asia
The RSF report also singled out Tibet, where local people and monks have been incarcerated simply for telling people outside the region what is going on there.
RSF added that while Burma had risen from 169th place in the index last year to 151st place this year, Hong Kong, which traditionally enjoys far greater freedom generally than mainland China, dropped four places to 58th.
Cambodia had a dramatic fall of 26 spots to 143rd place, its lowest-ever position, due to an "increasingly ruthless" policy of censorship and deadly attacks on journalists who exposed government corruption.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.