Who is afraid of a free press?

The Communist Party of China does not want to hand over the pen to anyone else.

In an era of fake news and disinformation, freedom of the press is a precondition for democracy, peace, investment and prosperity.  

By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

On October 8, the Communist Party of China (CCP) announced that it is planning to outlaw all news outlets funded by private investment, including a ban on reproduction of foreign media content, in an all-out effort to muzzle criticism and control narratives that can affect public opinions.

Like how Xi Jinping in the past few months has cracked down on some of China’s most innovative and profitable companies and caused at least US$3 trillion fall in market value.  Or how his hostage diplomacy and common prosperity campaign have scared away foreign investment.  Or the fact that around the world, people want Pfizer, Moderna and other western vaccines, not Sinovac and Sinopharm. 

In the announcement, the CCP specified that non-government capital “shall not invest in, set up or operate news agencies, newspapers, publishing companies, radio or television stations”. The CCP also specified that private capital cannot be used for broadcasting of key events, including news related to politics, economics, the military, diplomacy and culture.

The announcement effectively sounded the death knell, not unexpectedly, for the freedom of the press.  This crackdown is a means to deny the public access to reliable information and to deter real journalists in pursuit of truth in the public interest.  The CCP wanted to make sure that it controls all messaging and narratives and that there is only one dominating voice to rule over everything.

Foreign news organizations operating in China and local privately-owned news outlets like the South China Morning Post now face an even more bleak future.  In recent years, the CCP has ramped up harassment against them, sometimes threatening specific journalists and news outlets.  

The CCP also goes after and persecutes independent/citizen journalists who published content which is in contrast to the official narrative, such as Chen Qiushi, Zhang Zhan and Fang Bin who disseminated on the ground information from Wuhan during the initial Covid-19 outbreak.  

Disinformation from the tip of a pen

From the day the CCP came into power in 1949, it has always regarded the media as a tool to serve the party’s interest.  For decades, the CCP holds a tight grip over news and information, and engages in propaganda and disinformation campaigns, using state media, to influence domestic as well as global audiences.  All state media falls directly under the CCP purview and party directives are issued to newsrooms to instruct on reporting and coverage, including which topics are taboo or which ones are allowed to be reported on. 

Be that as it may, under Xi Jinping’s rule since 2012, the control over the media has been increasingly intensified as he is determined to take the country back to the days of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary.  But the rise of the internet and social media poses a threat to Xi’s rule as there are now ways for people to find out news and information about what is going on around them. 

In a visit in 2016 to the newsrooms of state media outlets, Xi demanded “absolute loyalty” and ordered all staff to “love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action”.  Therefore, Xi, with the clampdown on the free press now, wants to embark on a new revolutionary to, once and for all, stamp out all the remnants of a bourgeois culture, from materialism to capitalism, and to eradicate universal values like freedom, democracy, equality and human rights from the minds of the masses, and taking China back to a totalitarian regime.

A free press democratizes information

Relative to a totalitarian regime where the supreme leader uses the media to brainwash and control the masses, a free press acts as a bulwark against corruption, unethical business practice and is a check and balance for accountability of a government.  A free press is good for the economy as it helps exchange of ideas which spurs innovation and entrepreneurship, and promotes a vibrant society conducive for investment. 

A free press ensures what officials do are for the good of the country’s national interest and for the good of the people.  A free press helps the democratization of information by guaranteeing freedom of access to reliable news and an unbiased variety of information sources.  

The CCP is afraid of a free press because transparent, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and propaganda.  A free press exposes abuse of power, use of violence against own citizens, inequality, and human rights violations.  Importantly, a free press holds powerful leaders accountable to the people they vow to serve.

It is an understatement to say it is difficult to be a real journalist in China today.  In a global survey by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on journalists in prison for work-related cases, China ranks high on the list with 23 jailed journalists as at March 2021.  Jailing journalists is a form of reprisals against independent reporting and also serves as a deterrent for journalists not to overstep “red lines”.

According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2021, China ranks as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row. The Chinese authority imposed draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting and mundane daily communications. The Covid-19 pandemic remains one of the most heavily censored topics. 

Turning the narrative of Covid-19 into propaganda victory

In the initial days when the CCP mishandled the management of the Covid-19 outbreak, the propaganda machine went into overdrive to regain control of the narrative around this public health disaster.  The police silencing of Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned people about early Covid-19 infections in Wuhan, and the stopping of export and hoarding of medical supplies by the CCP before informing the world of the outbreak, were just some examples.

The authority repeatedly obstructed foreign news outlets in their attempts to cover the pandemic.  State media and Chinese embassies had also stepped up their rhetoric against foreign journalists in an attempt to discredit their reporting.  Police surveillance systems were used to harass and intimidate foreign journalists, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom they sought to interview.  They were targeted in alleged national security investigations and told they could not leave the country.  

In the first half of 2020, the CCP also cancelled press visas and expelled at least 18 foreign journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.  Chinese nationals who were working for foreign media faced increasing pressure too, as the CCP interrogated them, forced their resignations and in some cases, locked them up in detention.

Unmasking the CCP

Therefore, the CCP’s totalitarian behavior towards a free press is a big wake-up call to the rest of the world that in today’s global contest of ideology and values, it is important to recognize the true nature of the CCP and not let communism has the upper hand over democracy.  It is not realistic to sit idle and naively hope that things will get better if there is more commercial engagement with the CCP.  It does not pay to pander to the CCP and it is critical that freedom-loving people stand resolute in the face of CCP’s propaganda onslaught. 

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