Activist countries

Activists warn US lawmakers to counter media restrictions in China-influenced countries

The United States must step up its efforts to stem the deterioration of press freedom across East Asia, including by supporting media outlets in the periphery of mainland China, lawmakers said Wednesday.

A panel of rights activists issued the recommendations – including sanctions against those seen as an assault on press freedom and a haven for persecuted journalists – to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, amid warnings from advocacy groups that some governments want to replicate Beijing’s grip on media content.

Beijing’s ability to build ‘the most sophisticated and multi-layered information control apparatus in the world has shown that such a project is possible and has played a role in normalizing digital repression’ , said Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House. , a Washington-based democracy watchdog.

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The number of journalists imprisoned around the world hit a record high last year, with China and Myanmar ranking first and second in a ranking of the “worst jailers of journalists in the world” compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Vietnam ranked fourth, after Egypt.

Cook and others have pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has provided a pretext for hardline governments in the region to step up surveillance and crack down on freedoms of speech and assembly.

Coming politically sensitive events in the region were also likely to trigger further crackdowns, including a presidential election in the Philippines and the 20th Chinese Party Congress this year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to begin a third five-year term. .

Since taking office in 2013, Xi has redoubled his efforts to “tell China’s story well” to the outside world, investing heavily in the foreign reach of state media, publishing paid supplements in newspapers foreigners and relying on western social media platforms. as a mouthpiece for government diplomats.

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“Wherever the readers are, wherever the audience is, that’s where propaganda reporting needs to spread its tentacles,” Xi said in 2015 during a visit to China’s official military newspaper.

On Wednesday, lawmakers expressed particular concern about the impact of those efforts on Taiwan, which Sen. Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, called a target of more misinformation “than any other place in the world.” , especially when approaching autonomy. -the presidential election of the ruled island in 2020.

The US Congress funds a number of US media outlets, such as Radio Free Asia, which seek to reach global audiences living in or near countries where news flows are heavily restricted.

Joey Siu, policy adviser at UK-based Hong Kong Watch, called on lawmakers not only to increase this funding, but also to extend this financial support to overseas outlets operating in places “close” to China such as as Taiwan and Japan, “to ensure continuity and timely coverage of developments”.

Siu and Cook also called on the United States to provide humanitarian relocation channels for journalists facing persecution in their home countries.

Hong Kong, on which the Chinese government imposed national security legislation in 2020 banning acts of secession, among other offences, drew particular attention on Wednesday as a place where Beijing has sought to clamp down on free speech. .

Authorities in the semi-autonomous city have made some 150 arrests under the law, including a number of journalists. Two leading media, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forced to close last year following the arrest of their top executives and the seizure of assets.

And having long enjoyed relative freedom online compared to the rest of China, Hong Kongers could no longer access certain websites, Siu said, including that of Hong Kong Watch.

Last year, for example, authorities invoked national security law to block access to HKChronicles, a local website that published first-hand accounts of the 2019 anti-government protests.

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Joining Siu and Cook ahead of Wednesday’s panel was Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist from the Philippines who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.

Citing the proliferation of misinformation on platforms like Facebook in the Philippines, she urged US lawmakers to reform or repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – legislation that grants immunity to social media sites from liability. liability based on third party content.

“Platforms — and the autocrats who operate them — must be held accountable, and democratic governments must act faster,” Ressa told lawmakers.

Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, 22 journalists have been killed in the country, according to a count by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

In this context, Ressa called on the US government to also consider imposing Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Filipino officials, referring to the punitive measures Washington has deployed in recent years against a number of state actors – including the China – for alleged human rights violations.

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