Journalism is not a crime but dictators think otherwise

Journalism is a fundamental pillar of all democratic countries because it provides citizens with information to make informed decisions to participate and give feedback on governmental affairs and policies.  More Importantly, journalism holds officials accountable.  However, on the other side of the political systems, on a regular basis in totalitarian regimes like China and Russia, reporters and journalists are persecuted, arrested, and even killed for simply doing their job, just because dictators want to repress, intimidate and brainwash the masses into believing propaganda favorable to the regimes.

Communist China has a long history of suppressing journalism, and has consistently used its power to silence journalists who reported on politically sensitive issues.  But since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the campaign against journalists, part of a broader trend of repressing civil society that also targeted NGOs, labor activists, human rights activists and lawyers, took on increased importance and thus went into overdrive.  

Additionally, complementing its tightened grip on the media, China has invested heavily in propaganda and has reportedly paid millions of dollars to foreign media outlets to influence their coverage of China.  This total intolerance for dissenting voices signaled that the government will go to great lengths to stifle those who spoke out against it, and that there will be a continuing escalation of persecution into the foreseeable future.

This disturbing habit has consequences not only for Chinese citizens but for the whole world as well.  Now that the world has entered Covid endemic and lifted all pandemic restrictions, the Chinese government is quietly rewriting its Covid-19 narrative to prevent investigations into the origins, which by knowing the truth has the potential to save millions of lives in mitigating all future pandemics.  With the crackdown on journalism and churning out propaganda, China is putting the whole world at risk again, of not being fully prepared by not having accurate information, when there is another global pandemic. 

It is well-documented that at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which originated at the Chinese city of Wuhan, the authority blacked out all information, arrested whistleblowers including Dr. Li Wenliang who later died succumbing to the virus, did nothing to isolate and prevent the spread of Covid-19, and did not raise alarm to the World Health Organization and other countries.

Now, the communist government is taking its people’s struggle against science.  Officials muzzle scientists, hinder international investigations and censor online information and discussions.  Under governmental pressure, scientists withheld data, withdrew genetic sequences from public databases and altered crucial details in journal submissions.  The propaganda even targeted international journals and scientific databases.  

With all the cover-ups, it is hard to get any information out of China and even if information did manage to slip out, there is a possibility it may be doctored, all of which is detrimental to the longstanding global practice of shared scientific knowledge.  The world must take a firm stance against the Chinese government’s disinformation and deceptive behavior. 

Some examples of persecuted journalists

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, working for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested in Russia on March 29 and charged with spying.  The authority claimed Gershkovich, who could face up to 20 years in jail if found guilty, was trying to obtain classified defense information for the U.S. government, which he denied.  

In China, reporters reporting on the widespread protests on November 27, 2022 calling for an end to the disastrous zero-Covid policy, faced immediate repression.  Numerous reporters were physically assaulted by the police and a number of them were arrested, including BBC’s correspondent Edward Lawrence, Renwu Magazine journalist Wang Xue, Beijing News journalist Yang Liu and freelance journalists Qin Ziyi and Li Siqi.  They faced charges from “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order,” for which one can be sentenced up to life imprisonment. 

In March 2021, a journalist who worked for the state-run Global Times named Fan Yiran was detained by the police, who accused her of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.   She was critical of the Chinese Communist Party and its policies.  Also in March 2021, two Chinese nationals, Haze Fan and Yuke Song, who worked for the Bloomberg news bureau in Beijing were arrested on suspicion of “endangering national security”. 

In December 2020, Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist, was sentenced to four years in prison for her coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan. Zhang’s first-hand accounts of the situation in Wuhan were widely shared on social media, drawing international attention to the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak. Many saw her arrest and sentencing as a clear message to the media and journalists that they should not report critically on the official narrative of the pandemic.

China jails the largest number of journalists in the world

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), China ranks 175th out of 180 in the 2022 RSF World Press Freedom Index and is the world’s largest captor of journalists with at least 113 detained.  The continuing arrests of journalists in China represent a serious and egregious violation of press freedom and freedom of expression. 

The jailing highlighted the need for international organizations and democratic countries to monitor and denounce China’s treatment of journalists.  More often than not, China treats journalism as a crime and journalists as criminals because they are seen as a danger to those in power. By shining a light on government corruption, labor and human rights abuses, and other issues that officials would rather keep hidden, journalists threaten the status quo. Those in power will go to great lengths to silence reporters, using tactics like censorship, harassment, and violence to squash dissent. 

As the world becomes increasingly integrated and interconnected, it is essential that we recognize the importance of press freedom and stand up against regimes that seek to suppress it.  Journalists report on issues of both global and local importance, and it is crucial to ensure the Chinese government respects the freedom of the press and the important role that journalists play in informing the public and holding officials accountable.

Under international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information. This includes journalists, who must be allowed to do their jobs without fear of reprisals.

The world must protect and defend journalism

Press freedom is a fundamental human right that allows journalists to report the truth, hold governments accountable and provide the public with information necessary to make informed decisions.  A free press is also critical to combat disinformation and propaganda.  When journalists are free to report on the facts, it is easier for them to identify false or misleading information and debunk myths that might otherwise go unchallenged.

When journalists are silenced, the public suffers. Without access to accurate and reliable information, it becomes impossible to make informed decisions. Citizens cannot hold their elected officials accountable if they do not know what is really happening behind closed doors. In this sense, the persecution of journalists is an attack on democracy itself.

Journalists are often the only lifeline for those who are marginalized or oppressed. They provide a voice for the voiceless, giving a platform to those who might otherwise be ignored or forgotten. By silencing journalists, we silence those who are already struggling to be heard.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of December 1, 2021, there were 265 journalists jailed worldwide on charges related to their work.  This number represented a chilling trend of press freedom being threatened globally.  The vast majority of jailed journalists are imprisoned in China, Turkey and Egypt where press freedom is severely restricted and journalists are often targeted for their reporting.

Journalists face many dangers while doing their job, including harassment, assault, imprisonment and even death, making it important for the global community to defend press freedom and work for the release of unjustly detained journalists.  By supporting journalism, we in fact support the very values and ideals upon which our free and open societies are built upon.  We cannot let governments or powerful individuals silence those who seek to make the world a better place. 

In short, press freedom is important for democracy, accountability, transparency and human rights.  It is a fundamental right that must be defended not just by journalists but by all everyone who enjoys breathing in the air of freedom.

Photo credit: iStock/ Jorm Sangsorn

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