China remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists with 60 currently behind bars, the majority of whom are citizen reporters who operated outside the ruling Chinese Communist Party's strictly regulated state media, a Paris-based media watchdog reported.
Of the 60 journalists in prison or detention, 46 are "non-professional journalists who have tried to compensate for the Communist Party’s increasingly tight control on the traditional media," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in an annual report on Wednesday.
The report found that at least 10 citizen journalists are in danger of dying in Chinese prisons, including Uyghurbiz.com editor and scholar Ilham Tohti, and Huang Qi, founder of the Tianwang human rights website, who has been held without trial for more than two years.
The report said non-professional journalists are often held in "inhuman" conditions simply for posting something to social media.
"News and information providers who don’t toe the official line are increasingly subjected to censorship, surveillance, arrest, and arbitrary detention," the report said. "Many detainees are mistreated and some are tortured."
It said China and other authoritarian regimes including Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted "cyber-laws" in recent years, making it easier for them to target people who post information that isn't officially sanctioned online.
Li Datong, former editor of Freezing Point, a cutting-edge news supplement to the prestigious China Youth Daily newspaper that was shut down after a purge at the paper, said China has no press freedom to speak of.
"There has never been any freedom of the press in China, and now the last of the rights of citizens has been stripped away under this dictatorial regime," Li told RFA. "They are shutting down websites and social media accounts on a massive scale."
"They're not just trying to shut down the media; they want to shut down the voices of the people as well," he said. "The controls on public speech are now at their harshest and cruelest in 40 years."
Moving toward totalitarianism
U.S. author and commentator Gordon G. Chang said regular media controls and state propaganda have been taken to new extremes under President Xi Jinping, who took power in November 2012.
"The current controls on freedom of speech that have worsened under Xi Jinping are just one part of a much broader crackdown on society," Chang said. "This crackdown is affecting every aspect of life in China."
"The Xi Jinping administration is moving away from authoritarianism in the direction of totalitarianism, for example, there is the social credit system," he said. "And by 2020, they will have spent 626 million yuan installing cameras across the whole country."
"The Chinese government's control over people's lives is being taken to extremes," Chang said.
Analysts say media controls in China are no longer limited to a list of topics deemed "sensitive" by the government, but are morphing into a nationwide monitoring and censorship system targeting individual thoughts and actions.
Official media reported in March that China is on track to complete a nationwide facial recognition and surveillance network, achieving near-total surveillance of urban residents, including in their homes via smart TVs and smartphones, by 2020.
The nationwide "Sharp Eyes" platform will be able to link up public surveillance cameras and those installed in smart devices in the home, to a nationwide network for viewing in real time by anyone who is given access.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.