China is a "festering" black hole when it comes to freedom of the press, a Paris-based media watchdog said in a recent report.
China fell one place lower on Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) annual Index of Press Freedom, the group said, "because of the monopoly of power exercised by [its] president Xi Jinping."
Citing Xi's amendment of China's constitution to enable him to serve a second, indefinite term in office, RSF said that the ruling elite suppress all debate in the country's state-run media, "while cracking down relentlessly on citizen journalists who try to make a dissenting voice heard."
"China’s anti-democratic model, based on Orwellian high-tech information surveillance and manipulation, is all the more alarming because Beijing is now promoting its adoption internationally," RSF warned.
Not happy with obstructing the work of journalists within its borders, China is now trying to establish a "new world media order," the report said.
"The Chinese system of total news control is increasingly serving as a model for other anti-democratic regimes," it said.
More controls in recent years
Chinese media commentator Jin Zhongbing agreed with the report's findings.
"There is a general sense that there are more [controls] in recent years, including legislation and various kinds of regulations, than there were before," Jin said. "Those of us who work in the media often find that our stories don't get published, because they touch on certain sensitive words."
"It feels as if the definition of what is sensitive is getting broader and broader," he said. "The space left by these policies is getting smaller and smaller, so it's a worrying situation."
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said that even journalists working in or traveling to Hong Kong could be at risk of arrest for alleged infractions of Chinese law, under a proposed amendment to the city's extradition law allowing the rendition of "suspected criminals" to mainland China at Beijing's request.
"It used to be fine once you had gotten across the border into Hong Kong, but now, people will start to wonder whether they should take on certain types of reporting," Lui said.
"If [journalists] pursue certain stories, such as anything to do with the military, or the assets of the family members of Chinese leaders, offshore companies and so on, then they could get you on any pretext," he said.
"I think this is going to make some journalists a bit less bold about uncovering information in mainland China," Lui said. "Ultimately, it will have an impact on the media's function in monitoring those in power, and the public's right to know."
"It will mean that those in power have a totally free hand," he said.
An extension of the CCP
President Xi has insisted that the state media are an extension of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), sharing its aims and political goals, and act as its mouthpiece.
Last September, the U.S. Justice Department demanded that China's official Xinhua News Agency and state-owned international broadcaster CGTN register as foreign agents.
Xinhua News Agency is directly controlled by the CCP and answers to the country's cabinet, the State Council, while CGTN is the English-language network of Beijing-based state broadcaster CCTV, under the direct control of the party's Central Propaganda Department.
Media regulators have banned the country's internet portals like Tencent and Sina from conducting any independent journalism of their own, requiring them to post syndicated content from organizations on the CCP’s approved state media whitelist.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) found in a recent survey of its members in January that more than half thought conditions had deteriorated in 2018, and surveillance and official retaliation had become the hallmarks of reporting from China.
Nearly half of the respondents said they were followed or "were aware that a hotel room was entered without permission.” Ninety-one percent said they were concerned about the security of their phones, while 22 percent were aware authorities tracked them using public surveillance systems.
Overall, 55 percent of respondents said they believed conditions deteriorated in 2018.
Official harassment or retaliation also rendered Chinese nationals working for foreign news organizations vulnerable, the report found, with 37 percent of 91 respondents reporting that their Chinese colleagues were pressured, harassed, or intimidated.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.