China's media freedom ranking has taken another blow due to the government’s crackdown on online speech and stepped-up pressure on foreign journalists, Washington-based Freedom House said Thursday in an annual report that saw global media freedom falling to its lowest level in a decade.
Chinese authorities over the last year sought to control news content, largely through the physical harassment of journalists covering sensitive news stories, restrictions on foreign reporters, and tightened constraints on online news outlets and social media, said the report which analyzed developments in 2013.
Freedom House, which has been conducting annual surveys since 1980, said world press freedom has hit its lowest level in a decade with the share of the world's population, with media rated "free" at 14 percent in 2013, or only one in seven people.
“We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger,” said Karin Karlekar, project director of the report.
“In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”
In a year which saw countries in the Asia-Pacific region—including Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia—remain stable on the annual media freedom index and Myanmar improve its ranking, China dropped to 84 points from 83 in 2012, on a scale which measures a score of zero as “the most free” and 100 as “the least free.”
Beijing shut down the accounts of influential bloggers and in some cases detained them and forced them to publicly repent as a result of their writings, the report said.
The report designated China “not free” to the press and called it “home to the world’s most sophisticated censorship apparatus.”
“Despite the robust censorship system, journalists, grassroots activists, and ordinary Internet users have continued to use creative means to expose official wrongdoing, in some cases forcing the authorities to offer concessions, such as the dismissal of corrupt officials and the closure of a notorious labor camp,” it said.
“However, Chinese citizens’ ability to share and access uncensored information, particularly about breaking news, suffered an overall setback in 2013,” Freedom House said, noting that officials targeted netizens following a presidential speech in August urging cadres to reassert ruling Chinese Communist Party dominance over online public opinion.
New judicial guidelines issued in September that expanded the criminalization of online speech and a growing number of arrests had “an immediate and palpable chilling effect on [Internet-based] discourse, surpassing previous government attempts to increase control over social media, and contributing to China’s score decline.”
Locally-based print and broadcast media were also tightly controlled in China, with several journalists deemed to have violated censorship guidelines facing dismissal or forced resignations, the report said.
Foreign media also “encountered heightened pressure,” as the websites of critical international outlets remained blocked and China declined to renew or threatened to withhold visas for prominent reporters from companies, including Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times.
Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners, and other persecuted groups “continued to face especially harsh treatment for their efforts to share information that departs from the official line,” it said.
“Dozens and possibly hundreds of people in ethnic minority regions were detained for allegedly spreading online rumors on various topics in 2013.”
China’s Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, which is designated Partly Free to the press by Freedom House, also dropped to 37 from 35, “its lowest [score] in a decade,” the report said.
It said the decline was “due to a continuing trend of serious and unsolved physical attacks against journalists, publishers, and media outlets,” as well as ongoing concerns over “self-censorship and the use of myriad forms of economic and political pressure by Beijing.”
The world’s worst-rated country was North Korea, with its score down to 97 from 96. In 2012, it had shared the last spot with Turkmenistan.
Overall, the 40 countries and territories of the Asia-Pacific region “exhibited a relatively high level of press freedom in 2013,” according to the report, with 14 rated Free, 13 rated Partly Free, and 13 rated Not Free.
But it cautioned that the overall trend masked a “considerable sub-regional diversity,” with the Pacific Islands, Australasia, and parts of East Asia boasting “some of the best-ranked media environments in the world,” while conditions in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and other parts of East Asia are “significantly worse.”
Only five percent of the region’s population had access to Free media in 2013, it said, while 47 percent lived in Partly Free and 48 percent in Not Free media environments.
After several years of gains in the Asia-Pacific regional average score—driven mainly by recent reforms in Myanmar—the score declined in 2013, largely due to what the report called “negative movement in the political category.”
But the region was “remarkably stable” in 2013, with no countries exhibiting a score change of more than three points in either direction.
Vietnam, which held at a score of 84, experienced an increase in news coverage by netizens in 2013, but also saw a crackdown on online speech, Freedom House said.
“In a restrictive environment without any private print or broadcast media, bloggers play a key role in reporting on sensitive news stories and spreading information,” it said.
“However, several additional bloggers were detained or received harsh sentences during the year, including lengthy jail terms, and a legal decree issued in September placed broad constraints on permissible online content.”
One-party Communist Laos tied with Vietnam and China at 84, equal to last year’s score, while Cambodia—where journalists regularly face intimidation through death threats and lawsuits in the country’s courts—maintained a score of 66.
Myanmar jumped to a score of 70 from 72 as a culmination of two years of “dramatic positive change” followed by “a smaller degree of improvement in 2013.”
“Although the pace of reform has slowed, the year did feature a further loosening of controls over the print media market and the licensing and opening of a number of new private daily and weekly newspapers,” the report said, noting that the nation remains Not Free.
“However, the drafting of new media laws with limited input from local industry groups, and restrictions on coverage of ethnic violence, remained issues of concern in 2013.”
Myanmar has remarkably gained 25 points over the period from 2009 to 2013—a significant improvement from its darker days of press restrictions under the former junta, which stepped aside after President Thein Sein’s quasi-military reformist government won elections three years ago.