Updated at 5:20 p.m. EST on 2014-12-16
China led the world in imprisoning journalists in 2014, with a total of 29 behind bars, amid fears Beijing may be exporting its model of censorship within the East Asian region, a Paris-based press freedom group said in an annual report on Tuesday.
China is also holding 73 netizens out of a global total that also came to 178.
As the global environment for freedom of information worsened slightly overall in 2014, China has continued to exert tight control on its official media, while extending its reach and influence to journalists beyond its borders, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its annual Press Freedom Index.
China fell two places to rank 175th in the world, just fifth from bottom, the group said.
"The authorities have arrested more journalists and bloggers, cracked down harder on cyber-dissidents, reinforced online content control and censorship and stepped up restrictions on the foreign media," the report said.
Former journalist at the Chengdu Commercial Daily and Shanxi Evening News Li Jianjun said journalists are under increasing censorship and political pressure from the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"I think things are getting worse and worse for freedom of expression in China," said Li, who is currently out of the country. "If I went back, I would likely contribute to the numbers in jail."
"They tend to use pretty hardline tactics like threatening and arresting journalists, coupled with softer tactics [to apply pressure]," Li said.
"It's not just journalists who are worried; it's news organizations as well, because they are having to step up self-censorship, as the parameters get narrower and narrower," he said.
Two prominent Chinese journalists contacted on Tuesday by RFA declined to comment on the report.
"I won't agree to this interview, because ... the risks have grown recently," former state newspaper columnist Zhai Minglei, told RFA.
And Chen Baocheng, who writes for the Caixin website, also declined to comment.
"I haven't thought carefully about the questions you are asking me, so I don't think it would be appropriate for me to reply," Chen said.
"I am traveling right now, so it's not very convenient," he said. "I can't really say any more now."
Li said there are far fewer options now open to Chinese journalists who wish to do useful work.
"Either you keep your mouth shut and tell lies according to their requirements, or you speak the truth and risk being arrested," he said.
"There is no such thing as reporting the truth with no danger; that's just not going to happen, or it's highly unlikely."
He said fewer and fewer articles are appearing in Chinese media that attempt to hold the government to account.
"There have been far fewer articles that hold officials to account during the past year," Li said. "Including right across the Internet."
"Everything has been severely suppressed."
Invoking national security
Benjamin Ismail, who heads RSF's China desk, agreed that investigative journalists are increasingly under threat.
"Journalists who cover corruption issues or environmental issues are specifically targeted, as well as ... citizen journalists and bloggers who cover human rights issues and political topics," Ismail said.
"The Communist Party in China is invoking national security to justify the arrest and the prosecution of journalists and bloggers," he said, adding: "There is no hope for journalists and bloggers who are arrested to receive a fair trial."
Ismail said that while the flow of information is growing fast on China's tightly controlled Internet, the authorities are also stepping up their efforts to control it.
"China, unfortunately manages to get worse; the oppression [we are seeing] is harsher."
"Tibet and Xinjiang have become almost black holes of information," Ismail said, adding that jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, whose September trial on separatism and state secrets charges was linked to writings on his Uighur Online website, lacked fairness and transparency.
The RSF report cited the cases of Caijing journalist Luo Changping, who was forced to leave the magazine in November, as well as Liu Hu, a New Express reporter who was arrested for disseminating "false information."
It said human rights activists and dissident bloggers like Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong (also known as Guo Feixiong), have also paid a high price for their writings in the past year.
Meanwhile, China's growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, territories that have traditionally enjoyed far greater press freedom, the RSF report said.
"Media independence is now in jeopardy in these three territories," the report said, adding that Hong Kong fell three places to the 61st slot in the 2014 Press Freedom Index, while Taiwan fell three places to 50th—four places below the United States.
The report said Beijing's growing subjugation of the Hong Kong government, and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its "Liaison Office" has compromised media pluralism in the former British colony.
Media freedom is also under threat in Taiwan following the acquisition of the English-language China Times newspaper by the pro-Beijing Want Want group, it said.
According to RSF, the "China model" of censorship and repression has been exported elsewhere in the region, in particular to Vietnam.
In Vietnam, independent news providers are subject to enhanced Internet surveillance, draconian directives, waves of arrests and sham trials, RSF said.
Vietnam is currently the world's largest jailer of bloggers and social media dissidents, it said, with 34 bloggers currently in detention of some kind.
It cited a decree issued by the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party last year banning bloggers and social media users from sharing news.
"It shows that the party is waging an all-out offensive against the new-generation Internet, which it sees as a dangerous counterweight to the domesticated traditional media," the report said.
Elsewhere in the region, Myanmar rose five places to 145th following recent political reforms, although the report said it remains to be seen if the transition to democracy will improve press freedom in the longer term.
Cambodia fell one place to 144th, while Laos fell three to 171st and North Korea dropped one place to 179th, with only Eritrea below it.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that China fell three places in RSF's annual Press Freedom Index to rank 178th in the world, just sixth from bottom.