Beijing Winter Olympics: RSF urges press to protect themselves against surveillance

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges journalists and media to protect themselves against the Chinese regime's surveillance when covering the Winter Olympics in early 2022.

From 4th to 20th February, 2022, China will host the 24th Olympic Winter Games and, although access to pre-Olympic events for foreign journalists has been very limited in the recent months due in particular to the Covid-19 pandemic, the sports and general press of the whole world will give the event very wide coverage.

On this occasion, RSF recommends journalists who travel to China to avoid downloading applications that could allow the Chinese authorities to monitor them. RSF also recommends that media outlets, publishers, and social networks denounce any editorial interference or pressure from the regime and continue their investigations into Beijing's attacks on press freedom (see the details of the recommendations below).

"The Olympic Games provide President Xi Jinping with a dream opportunity to restore his image and try to make people forget his catastrophic human rights records, including press freedom and the right to information,” says RSF East Asia Bureau head, Cédric Alviani. It is legitimate for the media to cover this major international event, but they must be wary of the regime’s manipulation attempts and protect their journalists from surveillance and possible pressure.”

China, the world's largest prison for journalists with at least 127 detained, ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index, just two places above North Korea, a country in which journalism is synonymous with state propaganda. President Xi Jinping, in power since 2013, has restored a media culture worthy of the Maoist era, in which to freely access information is not a right, but a crime. 

The sports world is particularly worried about the fate of international tennis champion Peng Shuai, a Chinese citizen who was apparently placed under house arrest after accusing a former deputy prime minister of rape on the 2nd November 2021 on the Chinese social network Sina Weibo, an event to which which the regime responded with an all-out censorship campaign. 

RSF’s recommendations: 

1. Recommendations for journalists

  • As far as possible, avoid using technological resources that entail a risk of censorship or surveillance by the Chinese authorities, either because they were developed by or are operated by a company subject to Chinese regulation (such as WeChat, Baidu, TikTok), or because user data is stored in servers accessible to the Chinese authorities (such as iCloud China).
  • If using these resources is absolutely necessary, connect from a dedicated computer or smartphone that is separate from your usual work environment. Do not store, even temporarily, passwords or information that could endanger you or your sources. Do not trust claims by operators that data passing through their servers in China is encrypted or immediately deleted. To protect Chinese sources, communication via end-to-end encrypted messengers which do not require the storage of a telephone number is recommended (e.g. Threema).
  • When conducting research in China, a suitable VPN should be installed before departure, for example, a company-owned VPN or a reliable paid version. VPN tunnels can provide access to blocked services and protect privacy to some extent during online research. However, a VPN does not protect the content of communications exchanged on Chinese platforms/services. An individual consultation with a digital security expert is advisable.
  • Notify RSF of any abuses you see in the course of your reporting and in your country’s media (pressure, threats, harassment, suspected self-censorship or suspected corruption) so that we can, if necessary, investigate.
  • When referring to China, take care to avoid using expressions designed to conceal certain realities. For example, refer to the repression in Xinjiang rather than the “fight against terrorism”, or to the Tiananmen massacre rather than the Tiananmen “events”.
  • Do not cooperate with media outlets that relay Chinese Communist Party propaganda and, if you are invited to China as a journalist, think about what may be asked of you in return. 
  • When participating in events such as media conferences organised by China, journalists and media outlets should be aware that Chinese representatives and officials will use these events as a platform for propaganda. By studying Chinese narratives and background information in advance, journalists can increase their awareness of propaganda strategies and prepare for critical discussions.

2. Recommendations for media outlets, publishers, and social networks

  • Do everything possible to prevent the risk of external pressure, whether political or economic, and denounce any editorial interference you experience.
  • Refuse all censorship and surveillance requests.
  • Refuse to disseminate propaganda content.
  • Continue to investigate and expose Beijing’s censorship, propaganda, media acquisitions, harassment of journalists, and other attacks on press freedom. 
  • Comply with the principles of the International Declaration for Information and Democracy, which stipulate that online platforms, as structuring entities of information and communication space, follow principles of accountability and responsibility, neutrality, promotion of reliable information, pluralism and serendipity, transparency to inspection, and vigilance.

These recommendations are extracted from a report entitled "The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China" that will be published by RSF in early December 2021. This publication will detail the system of censorship and information control put in place by the Beijing regime and the threat it poses for press freedom and democracy in the world.

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Updated on 29.11.2021