Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders criticized China for censoring early coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, telling CNN that the global pandemic may have been averted or lessened had journalists had more freedom in the country.

Strongman leaders around the world are using the coronavirus crisis to stifle journalists, the leading press freedom watchdog warned, as it bemoaned a missed opportunity to highlight the severity of the outbreak in its early days in Wuhan, China.

“If there had been a free press in China, if these whistleblowers hadn’t been silenced, then this could have been prevented from turning into a pandemic,” Reporters Without Borders’ UK bureau director Rebecca Vincent told CNN, as the group unveiled its annual assessment of media liberty in 180 countries.
“Sometimes we can talk about press freedom in a theoretical way, but this shows the impact can at times be physical. It can affect all of our health,” she added.

Chinese politicians downplayed the severity of the virus in its early weeks, while police targeted “rumormongers” and censors deleted any commentary that questioned the official line. Wuhan’s mayor Zhou Xianwang later said he understood the public was “unsatisfied with our information disclosure.

“Reporting the truth at the earliest possible moment would have allowed the rest of the world to react probably earlier and probably more seriously,” Vincent said. “The consequences (of stifling media freedom) are actually deadly.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Tuesday responded to the report, criticizing the group during a daily press briefing, saying that “this organization has always held deep-rooted prejudice against China and their so-called report is not worth rebutting.”