German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday urged China to be as transparent as possible about the coronavirus outbreak, as Beijing faces mounting pressure over its management of the crisis.
Critics have accused China of downplaying the scale and scope of the outbreak when it first emerged late last year, while conspiracy theories have swirled in the US the virus could have been leaked from a lab.
Merkel urged for more information about the early days of the outbreak, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
“I believe the more transparent China is about the origin story of the virus, the better it is for everyone in the world in order to learn from it,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin Monday.
Chinese scientists say the virus was likely first transmitted to humans at a wet market where wild animals were sold.
Unproven theories that the virus came from a maximum-security virology lab in Wuhan have been raised by US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who has said an investigation was under way into how the virus “got out into the world”.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has strongly rejected claims it could be the source of the outbreak, calling it “impossible”.
Chinese authorities have been accused of initially downplaying the outbreak and last week authorities in Wuhan admitted mistakes in counting their death toll and revised the figure up by 50 percent.
French President Emmanuel Macron last week told the Financial Times it would be “naive” to think China had handled the pandemic well, adding: “There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”
In Britain, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said China will face “hard questions” about the coronavirus outbreak, namely “how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier”.
Australia meanwhile has called for an independent investigation into the global response to the pandemic, including the World Health Organization’s handling of the crisis.
Its foreign minister has said the country would “insist” on a review that would probe, in part, China’s response to the outbreak.
Hong Kong has plunged seven places in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index “because of its treatment of journalists during pro-democracy demonstrations,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says. China, meanwhile, was ranked 177th as it sought a “new world media order,” according to the French journalism watchdog.
Hong Kong was ranked 73rd in 2019 – its new ranking marks a significant drop from 18th, where the city stood back when the index was created in 2002. The press freedom rating is released annually to highlight the media freedom situation in 180 countries and regions and measures pluralism, the independence of the media, quality of legislative frameworks and the safety of journalists.
The report highlighted the treatment of reporters by the authorities during protests: “They have been the targets of police violence… the semi-autonomous territory [has] fallen seven places, one of Asia’s biggest falls.”
It also raised alarm over the regional decline in press freedom: “[T]he past decade has seen a steep decline with the adoption of undemocratic and totalitarian practices, the emergence of a populism that unleashes hatred on journalists, and extreme media polarization.”
Police have been repeatedly accused of targeting reporters during last year’s anti-extradition law demonstrations, with photos and videos showing officers pepper-spraying members of the press at close range. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has issued dozens of open letters to complain about police obstruction of journalists.
Meanwhile, high-ranking government officials have openly criticised public broadcaster RTHK for their reporting on political affairs. Backed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau condemned RTHK’s The Pulse for allegedly breaching the One China Principle after the programme questioned a World Health Organisation advisor about Taiwan’s membership status.
On Monday, the Communications Authority also warned RTHK over its show Pentaprism, saying that there were substantiated complaints over an episode’s accuracy, incitement of hatred, fairness and factual contents.
In an episode aired on November 20 last year, a guest host criticised the police handling of the unrest around Hong Kong Polytechnic University, during which protesters were cornered by riot police. The authority claimed the show inaccurately quoted a foreign journalist who stated that the police acted unpredictability. The authority said the remarks were “irresponsible, and could be regarded as a hate speech with the effect of inciting hatred against the Police…”
The months-long demonstrations escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment.
Hong Kong now sits two places below Timor-leste in the index, and below Toga, Mongolia and Kosovo.
‘New world media order’
China, which Reporters Without Borders identified as an authoritarian regime, was ranked fourth from the bottom above Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. “China, which is trying to establish a ‘new world media order,’ maintains its system of information hyper-control, of which the negative effects for the entire world have been seen during the coronavirus public health crisis.” The NGO cited the arrest of three citizen journalists who reported on the coronavirus crisis as an example of the extensive censorship and suppression of media freedom during the pandemic.
The report also mentioned the country’s persecution of dissident journalists and over 100 currently detained journalists of whom the vast majority are Uyghurs.
“One of the most salient crises is geopolitical, caused by leaders of dictatorial, authoritarian or populist regimes making every effort to suppress information and impose their visions of a world without pluralism and independent journalism,” the report said.
Index scores are calculated by experts using questionnaires sent to journalists across the world in 20 languages. Scandinavian countries – Norway, Finland and Sweden – were the top three countries in the 2020 index.