China gains when democracies target press freedoms
A free press helps a country’s resilience to foreign influence campaigns, but democracies are weakening their defences.
This June, authorities in the Philippines ordered the boldly independent news website Rappler to shut down. In February 2021, a powerful Senegalese government minister won a defamation case against the daily Le Témoin. That same month in Malaysia, a court found digital news outlet Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court for reader comments on its website that criticised the judiciary.
The news media increasingly face restrictions around the globe. Yet what these three outlets also have in common is a record of exposing the Chinese government’s political, economic and media influence in their respective societies.
By suppressing them for domestic political reasons, national authorities are also effectively weakening their own countries’ ability to resist interference from the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime.
At a time when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is poised to convene for its 20th Congress starting October 16, a new report from Freedom House documents intensifying efforts by the party to shape news coverage in a diverse sample of 30 countries. The report also tracks how those countries are responding. Its key finding: a free press is an essential component of a country’s resilience to influence campaigns by foreign authoritarian regimes, but that defence is often undermined by anti-democratic actions taken by the target nation’s own government.
In 19 of the countries examined in our report, domestic attacks on the press and civil society have increased since 2019.
The CCP has pursued its overseas media influence efforts more aggressively and with greater urgency since 2019 when it began to confront waves of global condemnation for its atrocities in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Hong Kong, and its mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing is using the campaign to project a distorted image of the CCP as a responsible international stakeholder.
Our report found that Beijing is increasingly turning to covert and coercive tactics like diplomatic intimidation, cyberbullying, the mass deployment of fake accounts on social media and the dissemination of CCP narratives through local friendly voices.
Independent journalists and civil society activists have been especially instrumental in pushing back on those tactics by shedding light on China-related disinformation campaigns, potentially corrupt investment deals, and the CCP’s human rights abuses. In doing so, they have defied pressure to self-censor from the Chinese government, its proxies, and their own country’s officials, which we found happened in 12 of the countries assessed in our report.
In Kenya, the independent Media Council publicly rebuked the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation in 2019 for republishing Chinese state propaganda about Xinjiang. Italian media outlets examined social media posts and hashtags from Chinese diplomats about aid to the country during the 2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and discovered they were manipulated to share false information or were boosted by bots.
In March 2022, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines released guidelines for reporting about China in response to the country’s growing influence in the region, emphasising transparency and independence while avoiding racist language about Chinese people.
While democracies cannot control Beijing’s drive to expand its influence globally, they can control their own policies and responses. When democratic leaders undermine human rights protections and weaken democratic norms at home, they open their countries up to potential exploitation by powerful authoritarian states like China.
Our report documented several countries that attack their media in ways that weaken their democratic defences against CCP influence. India’s Hindu nationalist government has overseen arrests of journalists and applied financial and editorial pressure on media outlets to restrict critical news coverage.
For the moment, media groups in India are still free enough to push back against efforts by the Chinese embassy to shape their reporting on Taiwan, especially as relations between New Delhi and Beijing are currently poor. However, further efforts to structurally weaken independent media could prevent reporting of Chinese government influence efforts.
In Nigeria, meanwhile, journalists filed freedom of information requests to expose the Nigerian government’s acceptance of billions of dollars in opaque loans from a Chinese state-owned bank. Such important reporting could be at risk if the Nigerian government goes ahead with plans to build a CCP-style “Great Firewall” or introduces Chinese-style prison sentences for critical social media posts.
Other democracies have also walked away from their human rights values in recent years.
In Britain, the government has proposed weakening protections for public-interest reporting under the Official Secrets Act, scrapping and replacing the Human Rights Act, and degrading online encryption tools.
In the United States, two Supreme Court judges have signalled an interest in overturning the strong defamation protection precedent that has held since 1964. The executive and legislative branches in the country have at times undertaken efforts that would weaken encryption technology. And journalists have faced violence and arrests while reporting on protests in 2020 following years of demonisation by political leaders as the “enemy of the people”.
Beijing will no doubt exploit anti-democratic actions in democracies to justify its own human rights abuses. Freedom House has tracked 16 years of democratic decline and how authoritarian regimes like the CCP have expanded their influence in this vacuum globally.
This influence has played out in a range of ways to shape news coverage in a manner favourable to the CCP, with local media or governments censoring or restricting coverage on behalf of Beijing.
ESPN reportedly issued a memo to reporters prohibiting coverage of politics in China or Hong Kong when discussing the fallout of a tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets supporting Hong Kong protesters in 2019. Governments in Mozambique and Malaysia have restricted local news coverage critical of Chinese authorities. British GQ magazine deleted an online article that named Chinese leader Xi Jinping as the third worst-dressed man of 2019 after its parent company reportedly found out and said it would cause “offence”.
Policymakers in democracies should make corrections before it is too late. They must strengthen democratic norms at home to protect human rights and build resilience to authoritarian activities.
They should end attacks on the media, civil society and individuals exercising the right to free expression.
Lawmakers should drop legislation that criminalises “fake news” and adopt stronger protections against defamation lawsuits. They should ensure regulations on foreign funding or investment are transparent and impartially enforced while preventing political persecution of independent media and civil society groups with foreign ties.
Any measures to restrict or counter harmful CCP influence must be proportionate, lawful and otherwise consistent with international human rights standards.
While Rappler, Le Témoin, and Malaysiakini have so far weathered attacks by their governments, they operate in an increasingly threatened space.
The CCP is actively adapting and applying skills it learned at home to suppress dissenting voices abroad.
Democratic societies have the means to resist this effort, but if they are to succeed, they must stop damaging the very tools and assets that are their biggest shields against China’s plans.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.