Press freedom advocates say China’s censorship of a letter co-authored by 27 European Union ambassadors that contained a reference to the origins of the coronavirus is another example of how the lack of press freedom in the country has caused problems for the world.
A sentence in the EU letter, which referred to China as the point of origin of the outbreak, was deleted when it was published in the Wednesday edition of the English language newspaper China Daily to mark the 45th anniversary of the grouping’s diplomatic ties with China.
The full version, which appeared on the websites of EU embassies to China, said “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months, has meant that our pre-existing plans have been side-tracked.”
But the edited version published in state media omitted the words, “in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months.”
The European Union Thursday expressed regret but seemed to accept the edit.
“China has state-controlled media. There is censorship, that's a fact,” EU foreign affairs spokesperson Virginie Battu-Henriksson said in Brussels. But she said agreeing to the letter’s censored publication meant the bloc could engage the Chinese on other key EU issues, including climate change, human rights and the pandemic response.
Cédric Alviani, head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) East Asia bureau, said the incident showed that China repeatedly takes advantage of the media systems in western democracies to control narratives in its favor, while using its state media to mislead the world.
“We call on the democracies to resist and never ever to compare the Chinese propaganda media with independent media that respect journalism ethics,” Alviani told VOA.
Alviani was referring to comparisons made by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs.
The bureau Thursday tweeted that “last night, @washingtonpost [The Washington Post] carried Amb Cui’s [Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai] Op-Ed because that’s what freedom of the press looks like. Also last night, [U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser] Matt Pottinger’s speech on Weibo [China’s equivalent to Twitter] disappeared within 5 minutes because that’s what censorship looks like.”
In his Washington Post op-ed, Cui called for an end to the "blame game" over the pandemic, saying allegations blaming China for the outbreak's spread risked "decoupling" the world's two largest economies.
He said, "it's time to focus on the disease and rebuild trust between our two countries... and restart the global economy."
In his Monday speech, Pottinger praised whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang and several citizen journalists, calling them the true torch carriers of the spirit of the May 4 Movement, which ushered in a modern China a century ago.
Alviani said Chinese media, which works as the party state’s mouthpiece and never hesitates to exercise censorship, are no comparison to free and independent press in the West.
He also cautioned readers against Cui’s opinions in The Washington Post, which he believed are in no way fair, reliable and fact-based. Instead, he described the opinion as propaganda from a regime that constantly violates the press freedom.
China’s double standards
Michael Chugani, a columnist in Hong Kong, said the EU letter, Pottinger’s speech and Cui’s opinion in The Washington Post are some of the many examples of Chinese media’s double standard.
Chugani, in his Thursday column in the Economic Journal, argued that “China is the global king in abusing free market rules” because it has, time and again, weaponized its economy to achieve political aims.
For example, China banned Norwegian salmon for years when Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010, he said.
That abuse “also applies to China’s press freedom,” he told VOA in a written reply.
The Chinese government has increasingly applied ruthless persecution of independent journalists.
Longest jail term
One recent example is Chen Jieren, a former state media journalist-turned anti-corruption blogger who was sentenced to 15 years in prison last Thursday – the longest sentence ever handed down to a journalist under the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Reporters Without Borders has called for Chen’s release, denouncing his sentence as "a throwback to the practice of the Maoist and is clearly designed to set an example and ensure that no Chinese journalist dares to question the regime again."
Chen, who was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” extortion and blackmail, “illegal business activity,” and “bribes,” was given a fine of $990,000 after a court in Hunan province concluded that he had taken more than that amount in bribes.
The court said Chen has “used the information network to publish false and negative information… attack and vilify the party and the government.”
Chinese Human Rights Defenders also urged Chen’s release, saying in a statement that his “punishment sends a chilling signal” to his peers.
Journalist or ‘fraud’?
But Li Datong, a former colleague of Chen’s at China Youth Daily, called the anti-corruption blogger a fraud.
“He’s not a legitimate journalist. He’s basically a hooligan. It’s inappropriate to portray him as the embodiment of justice because much of what he had done was profit driven. He has a questionable integrity,” Li said.
Li, however, agreed that there’s little room for Chinese independent journalists to freely report as the authorities have tightened controls on the press and speech freedom.
Admitting that it’s hard to judge if accusations against Chen are legitimate, RSF’s Alviani remained convinced that his sentence is too harsh.
“What is sure is that Chen Jieren had denounced the corruption of some members of the [Communist] party. And for that, he shouldn’t be punished with such a harsh sentence,” he said.
“I want to add that, in China, a prison sentence of such a length equals to a death sentence because of the very poor quality of the Chinese prisons,” he added.
Chen was arrested after he disclosed alleged corruption by local party officials in Hunan in mid-2018.