Last June, the Philippine authorities ordered the closure of the audaciously independent news site Rappler. In February 2021, a powerful Senegalese government minister won a libel suit against the daily newspaper Le Temoin. The same month in Malaysia, a court found digital media outlet Malaysiakini in contempt of court over comments by readers on its website that were critical of the justice system.

News media are increasingly facing restrictions around the world. Yet what these three outlets also have in common is a record of exposure of the political, economic and media influence of the Chinese government in their respective societies.

By suppressing them for domestic political reasons, national authorities also weaken their own country’s ability to resist interference from the most powerful authoritarian regime in the world.

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares to meet for its 20th Congress starting Oct. 16, a new report from Freedom House documents the party’s intensified efforts to shape news coverage in a diverse sample of 30 countries. The report also tracks how these countries are responding. Its main conclusion: a free press is an essential element of a country’s resilience to influence the campaigns of foreign authoritarian regimes, but this defense is often undermined by anti-democratic actions taken by the target country’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 efforts to influence foreign media more aggressively and with greater urgency since 2019, when it began to face waves of global condemnation for its atrocities in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Hong Kong and its mishandling 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 such as diplomatic intimidation, cyberbullying, mass deployment of fake social media accounts, and spreading CCP narratives through local friendly voices. .

Independent journalists and civil society activists have played a particularly important role in pushing back against these tactics by shedding light on China-linked disinformation campaigns, potentially corrupt investment deals and human rights abuses. by the CCP. In doing so, they defied self-censorship pressures from the Chinese government, its proxies, and officials in their own countries, which we believe happened in 12 of the countries assessed in our report.

In Kenya, the Independent Media Council publicly reprimanded the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation in 2019 for reposting Chinese state propaganda on Xinjiang. Italian media scrutinized social media posts and hashtags by Chinese diplomats on aid to the country during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak and found that they had been manipulated to share false information or stimulated by robots.

In March 2022, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines released guidelines for reporting on China in response to the country’s growing influence in the region, emphasizing transparency and independence while avoiding racist language about the 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 standards at home, they open their countries up to potential exploitation by powerful authoritarian states like China.

Our report has documented several countries that attack their media in ways that weaken their democratic defenses against CCP influence. India’s Hindu nationalist government has overseen the arrests of journalists and exerted financial and editorial pressure on the media to restrict coverage of critical news.

At the moment, media groups in India are still free enough to repel against efforts by the Chinese Embassy to shape its 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 the Chinese government’s influence efforts.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, journalists have filed freedom of information requests to denounce 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 introduce Chinese-style prison terms for critical social media posts. .

Other democracies have also drifted 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 downgrading the tools online encryption.

In the United States, two Supreme Court justices have expressed an interest in overturning the strong precedent of defamation protections that has existed since 1964. The country’s executive and legislative branches have at times undertaken efforts that would weaken encryption technology. And journalists faced violence and arrests as they covered the 2020 protests after years of demonization by political leaders as “the enemy of the people”.

Beijing will undoubtedly exploit anti-democratic actions in democracies to justify its own human rights abuses. Freedom House has followed 16 years of democratic decline and how authoritarian regimes like the CCP have extended their influence into this vacuum on a global scale.

This influence has manifested itself in various ways to shape news coverage in a pro-CCP fashion, with local media or governments censoring or restricting coverage in Beijing’s name.

ESPN reportedly issued a note to reporters banning coverage of politics in China or Hong Kong when discussing the fallout from a tweet by the Houston Rockets general manager supporting Hong Kong protesters in 2019. The governments of Mozambique and Hong Kong Malaysia have restricted coverage of local news critical of Chinese authorities. Britain’s GQ magazine has deleted an online article that named Chinese leader Xi Jinping the third worst-dressed man of 2019 after his parent company allegedly found out and said it would cause “offence”.

Policy makers in democracies should make corrections before it is too late. They must strengthen democratic norms at home to protect human rights and build resilience against authoritarian activities.

They must end attacks on the media, civil society and individuals exercising the right to freedom of expression.

Lawmakers should scrap legislation that criminalizes “fake news” and adopt stronger protections against defamation suits. They should ensure that regulations on foreign funding or investment are transparent and applied even-handedly while preventing political persecution of independent media and civil society groups with foreign ties.

Any measure to restrict or counter the harmful influence of the CCP must be proportionate, lawful and otherwise consistent with international human rights standards.

While Rappler, The Witness and Malaysiakini have so far resisted attacks from their governments, they operate in an increasingly threatened space.

The CCP actively adapts and applies the skills it has 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 greatest shields against China’s plans.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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