Oppression of journalists in China ‘may have been factor in Covid pandemic’

Persecution of journalists in China may have contributed to the global coronavirus outbreak by stopping whistleblowers coming forward in the early days of the pandemic, according to the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

China ranks 177th out of 180 countries on the organisation’s annual Press Freedom Index, with the organisation warning that persecution of journalists in totalitarian regimes affects citizens in western democracies.

“We can sit in the UK and think it’s mostly OK here – but actually what’s happening on the other side of the world can affect us,” said Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at the organisation. “We’ve argued and still argue that if the press had been freer in China then it’s possible a global pandemic could have been averted.”

China initially attempted to restrict reporting of a new infectious outbreak with the state’s online censorship tools, keeping other countries in the dark even as the disease began to spread around the world. Officials also persecuted whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang – who later died from Covid-19 – after he tried to share information in late December on patients with a new highly infectious disease in his Wuhan hospital.

Vincent said China’s growing global influence meant its government was exporting its attitude to the media throughout the world through state-backed news services such as CGTN: “It’s not just a danger for the people of China – they have more journalists in jail than anyone else – but it’s trickling throughout our international information systems. They’re trying to influence how we get and perceive information everywhere.”

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Reporters Without Borders’ latest index places the UK at 33rd behind countries such as Ghana, Spain and Lithuania, a slight improvement on last year. The organisation praised the government’s national action plan to protect journalists from abuse and harassment. But it said concerns remained about the attacks on journalists in Northern Ireland and the treatment of Julian Assange, who is being held in prison despite winning the latest round of his legal battle against deportation to the US.

The top spot on the press freedom index once again went to Norway, while Australia ranked 25th and the US came in at 44th. The biggest year-on-year fall on the index was in Malaysia, which fell 18 places to 119th, reflecting wider clampdowns on press freedoms across Asia.

The index is based on a survey of Reporters Without Borders’ regional correspondents and takes into account issues such as the level of attacks on journalists, media independence, and transparency of government institutions.

As in previous years, the countries with the worst record on press freedom tend to be dictatorships or one-party states such as North Korea or Turkmenistan, although the authors noted growing global animosity towards journalists.

Top 10 best countries for press freedom:
1. Norway
2. Finland
3. Sweden
4. Denmark
5. Costa Rica
6. The Netherlands
7. Jamaica
8. New Zealand
9. Portugal
10. Switzerland

Top 10 worst countries for press freedom:
1. Eritrea
2. North Korea
3. Turkmenistan
4. China
5. Djibouti
6. Vietnam
7. Iran
8. Syria
9. Laos
10. Cuba

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