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China's coronavirus censorship 'cost lives'

Reporters Without Borders claims press freedom in China could have helped avoid a pandemic
China's coronavirus censorship 'cost lives'

A police officer stands guard outside Huanan seafood market in Wuhan. Authorities hid the fact that initial cases of coronavirus were linked to the market in Wuhan, says Reporters Without Borders. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP)

Published: March 26, 2020 05:26 AM GMT
Updated: March 27, 2020 09:38 AM GMT

The Covid-19 pandemic might have been avoided and thousands of lives saved if China had a free press, according to a media campaign group.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) gathered evidence from various studies and reviewed events in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan during December and January to make its case.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party controls and censors news media in a country ranked 177 out of 180 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index

RSF claims that without such censorship “the Chinese media would have informed the public much earlier of the seriousness of the epidemic, saving thousands of lives and possibly avoiding the current pandemic.”

Authorities hid the fact that initial cases of coronavirus were linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, the group said.

If they had informed the media, RSF says, the public “would have stopped visiting this place long before its official closure on January 1.”

The group said that severe penalties for journalists’ sources, which can include heavy prison sentences, was partly responsible for keeping new and crucial information about the outbreak out of the news.

Dr. Lu Xiaohong, the head of gastroenterology at Wuhan City Hospital, could have alerted the media about the virus transmitting between humans if this deterrent had not been in place. This eventually happened three weeks after the hospital began hearing of cases of staff being infected.

When China officially alerted the World Health Organization about the epidemic on Dec. 31, it censored keywords referring to the coronavirus on popular social network We Chat.

Had it not done so, journalists could have used the platform to broadcast reports and precautionary advice, RSF said.

The first case of a coronavirus infection outside China, involving a tourist from Wuhan, was reported in Thailand on Jan. 13.

“If the international media had had full access to information held by the Chinese authorities on the scale of the epidemic before January 13, it is likely that the international community would have taken stock of the crisis and better anticipated it, reducing the risk of the epidemic spreading outside China and possibly avoiding its transformation into a pandemic,” RSF said.

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