Although the virus continues to spread, having now infected nearly 80,000 people (mainly in China) and killed more than 2,600, the Chinese authorities continue to censor certain information about the epidemic. In early February, they arrested two journalists, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, two political commentators, Guo Quan and Xu Zhiyong, and placed a third one, Xu Zhangrun, under house arrest.
In recent weeks, Beijing has also instructed the media to cover the heroism of the responders rather than the suffering of the population or the shortcomings of the measures taken by the government.
At the same time, the authorities have significantly tightened their grip on social media and discussion groups where certain journalists and bloggers had dared to post independent reports, and where many Internet users were no longer hesitating to express their anger and to demand an end to the censorship.
RSF urges the Chinese authorities to free the detained journalists and commentators and to allow the media to do their job of reporting the news without hindrance.
“Censorship is clearly counter-productive in the fight against an epidemic and can only aggravate it or even help turn it into a pandemic,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia desk. “Only complete transparency will enable China to minimize the spread of false rumours and convince the population to follow the health and safety instructions recommended for curbing the epidemic.”
The Chinese government has been much criticized both domestically and abroad for its opaque and bureaucratic handling of the coronavirus crisis.
China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, recognized in late January in a statement on its WeChat account that the arrests on 1 January of eight whistleblower doctors accused of spreading rumours – including Li Wenliang, who died as a result of the virus in early February – may have contributed to weaken the response to the epidemic.
President Xi Jinping has himself been criticized for waiting three weeks after the first documented case to alert the World Health Organization and more than six weeks before calling for mobilisation against the epidemic, on the eve of the Chinese New Year holiday.
The fact that the Chinese media are closely controlled by the Communist Party and are often forced to relay its propaganda has also facilitated the circulation of false rumours about the origins of the epidemic and the way to protect oneself.
China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.