An international press freedom group has warned of a campaign of coronavirus misinformation by China, which it ranked 177th out of 180 countries in an annual global press freedom index on Tuesday.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned that Beijing has been running a "global disinformation campaign" ever since the start of the pandemic that has killed 150,000 people and infected more than two million others worldwide.
The campaign is designed to drown out critics who blame Beijing for the spread of the virus on the grounds that its censorship of early warnings delayed adoption of the necessary public health measures, RSF said in a statement on its website.
It cited claims by Chinese officials that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was brought to the central Chinese city of Wuhan by the U.S. army, or that it might have been “circulating in parts of Italy before doctors were aware of the outbreak in China.”
"On the pretext of ‘setting the record straight’ about the coronavirus, Beijing is pumping out lies and imprecisions designed to discredit journalists’ work and sow doubt about what they are reporting," RSF East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said.
"It is important that the public is not taken in by the Chinese propaganda and gives preference to reporting by media outlets that respect journalistic principles."
Publishing its annual Press Freedom Index, RSF said the Asia-Pacific region saw the greatest rise in press freedom violations in the past year.
"There is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the Index," the group said, adding that both China (at 177th place) and Iran (down three places at 173rd) censored their major coronavirus outbreaks "extensively."
"China, which is trying to establish a 'new world media order,' maintains its system of information hyper-control, of which the negative effects for the entire world have been seen during the coronavirus public health crisis," RSF said, adding that China was the world's biggest jailer of journalists in 2019.
Hong Kong falls in ranking
More than 100 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in China, in conditions that pose a threat to their lives, RSF said.
Meanwhile, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments they leave on news items posted on social media or messaging services, or even just for sharing content, it said.
Hong Kong, which was promised press freedom under the terms of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule but which is seeing the ruling Chinese Communist Party take increasingly direct control of the city, also fell seven places because of its treatment of journalists during pro-democracy demonstrations, the report said.
Hong Kong's police force on Tuesday threatened the city's government broadcaster RTHK, saying it would "follow up" after the station aired comments critical of the police's handling of the protest movement.
The city's media regulator, the Communications Authority (CA), said a guest host on the opinion show "Pentaprism" aired on Nov. 20, 2019, had made inaccurate and unfair comments while discussing the police siege of Hong Kong's Polytechnic and Chinese universities, accusing RTHK of "negligence" in allowing them to be aired.
A police spokesman welcomed the CA’s decision, RTHK reported on Tuesday.
“Police are willing to accept criticisms which are constructive and based on goodwill. However, Police absolutely do not accept inaccurate or misleading reports and remarks, and will follow up as appropriate," the spokesman said.
The CA said the comments were "irresponsible" and could be regarded as a form of "hate speech" against the police, and issued a "serious warning."
Chinese attempts to change the global narrative
RSF said several Chinese ambassadors were summoned in recent weeks over attempts to change the global narrative on the origin of the coronavirus.
The Arabic-language channel of China's state-run global broadcaster CGTN aired comments on March 17 claiming a U.S. origin for the coronavirus.
"Chinese vlogger "Ms. V" said in an episode of "China View" that was published by CGTN Arabic TV (China) on March 17, 2020 ... that COVID-19 [likely] originated in the United States, and not in China," according to media translation service MEMRI.
"Initially, many thought that the beginning of the virus' emergence was from one of the seafood markets in Wuhan, but Chinese researchers reported in a new research that the transmission of the new coronavirus had started since last December outside this market, and the virus may have transmitted from a source or other sources to the seafood market, where the rapid spread of transmission began due to the presence of a large number of close contacts within this place, and the research also reported that the virus had started spreading after the Wuhan International Military Games ended in October 2019," it quoted "Ms. V" as saying.
China has come under increasing pressure from the international community in recent weeks, with the administration of President Donald Trump and other world leaders raising doubts about its transparency.
The U.S. State Department summoned the Chinese ambassador in Washington in March to ask why two Chinese foreign ministry officials, Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, were suggesting that the coronavirus had originated in the United States.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.