Hong Kong enjoys a unique position in China with rule of law and freedom of speech enshrined in its mini-constitution. Media outlets based in the city therefore have an unrepresented opportunity to be Beijing’s ‘watchdogs’ and fulfil a role that would be impossible behind the Great Chinese Firewall where civil liberties are restricted. However, it appears that Hong Kong’s press have settled into a role of Beijing’s ‘lapdogs’ as opposed to ‘watchdogs’, with multiple reports lamenting the city’s declining journalistic freedom.
Today, Hong Kong fell three places in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. We are now 61st – behind Burkina Faso, Moldova and Haiti. Also today, a scathing new analysis of Hong Kong’s ‘cancerous’ plague of self-censorship was published by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. As well as detailing physical attacks on journalists, it reveals how more than half of the city’s media owners have now accepted appointments to Beijing’s main political assemblies.
The CPJ states that media freedom is now at a “low point” with a 2013 HKU study showing that more than half of the public now believe the press self-censors.
40% of local journalists admitted to the Hong Kong Journalists Association that they or their supervisors had ‘played down’ criticism of the local and national government or mainland interests. Even the UN Human Rights Committee has urged the government to “take vigorous measures to repeal any unreasonable direct or indirect restrictions on freedom of expression”.
Paul Mooney, an award-winning American freelancer, worked for the South China Morning Post for two decades until 2012. After the newspaper’s first mainland-born editor, Wang Xiangwei, took control, Mooney discovered that his contract was not being renewed. He penned a whistle-blower piece exposing the SCMP’s lost credibility and decrying the poor staff morale.
Under the leadership of Wang Xiangwei, the SCMP launched a bizarre ‘campaign to celebrate Hong Kong‘ – a mindlessly positive collection of ‘fluff pieces‘ about the city and its culture. It is unclear how the project was funded and whether it had government financial backing. Additionally, a sanitised Chinese language version of scmp.com launched last year, devoid of any real, hard-hitting journalism that might upset mainland censors.
The situation is equally grim amongst the local Chinese press. Kevin Lau – editor of the (once ‘most-trusted’) Chinese title, Ming Pao – suddenly resigned in January amidst a wide ‘restructuring’. 200 staff members and protesters demonstrated outside the newspaper’s offices as it was announced that Malaysian journalist Chong Tien-siong would be taking control. Staff complained that Chong had no experience in Hong Kong, had failed to win the support of reporters and criticised a 2009 re-syndication deal he struck with pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po.
The phenomenon of self-censorship is not always an obvious process in newsrooms – often, journalists tire of having their pitches declined or of having their reports ‘spiked‘ or ‘harmonised‘ by editors. Eventually, they simply ‘tune in’ to what is expected and censor themselves – a slow-burning process that can occur either consciously or unconsciously.
Apple Daily, a widely-read tabloid, is Hong Kong’s last remaining pro-democracy title and the only newspaper that keeps a truly critical eye on events in the mainland. However, it still dropped to 17th ‘most credible’ local title in a public opinion survey conducted by the Chinese University last month.
As a result of its critical stance of Beijing, Next Media distribution workers have been threatened with knives and copies of the newspaper have been burned. Owner Jimmy Lai suspects thugs from across the border were responsible for the attack on its staff members last June.
An informed electorate is essential to democracy and the media has a duty to hold the powerful to account and shine a light in dark places. As Hong Kong’s press have become increasingly neutered, where does this leave the “two systems” part of the handover agreement? Will bloggers be left to pick up the slack or will they also come under pressure to avoid criticism?
The CPJ report ends on a more positive note, touching on the push back from regular Hong Kongers as they protested in their thousands last Autumn during the LegCo HKTV rallies. Demonstrators refused to accept the ‘unfair’ and ‘monopolistic’ TV licencing process, pointing to influence from Beijing. Online outlets such as House News, Post 852 and InMedia also offer a modicum of hope and are rising in credibility ratings.
Is the ‘Singaporisation’ of Hong Kong inevitable? The question remains as to whether these emerging independent titles are enough to fill the gap, or whether freedom of the press in Hong Kong is already in an irreversible death spiral.
Update #1: Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club has responded to the two reports today: “We welcome the organisations’ spotlight on a darkening climate of self-censorship — against a backdrop of official and commercial interference as well as physical violence — that threatens to erode Hong Kong’s unique position as a bastion of free expression under Chinese rule. That position has helped to cement Hong Kong’s reputation for rule of law and economic freedom, and must be protected.”
Update #2: As if to round off a terrible day for Hong Kong press freedom, Commercial Radio sacked an outspoken presenter today with no explanation. Staff learned that the outspoken government critic had been fired via a printed memo. It follows a row with management last year. Commercial Radio’s broadcasting license happens to be up for review in 2016.
A report from last year regarding Hong Kong’s declining press freedom ranking:
Archive of political posts and coverage…
- A Tour of the Famous Greenpeace Ship, Rainbow Warrior III.
- Average Salaries of Those Who Serve Us.
- Child Abduction Rumours Are Textbook Scarelore.
- Citizens Left to Clean Beaches Still Brimming with Plastic Pellets.
- CY Leung Humiliated at Ceremony Ahead of July 1st March.
- Election 2012 as Popvote.hk is Hacked.
- Food Choices on the Hong Kong Poverty Line.
- Henry Tang’s Daughter’s Artwork.
- Hidden Agenda Raided Again Over the Weekend.
- Hong Kong 3rd Best for Human Freedom? The Truth About ‘That Survey’.
- Hong Kong’s Invisible Caged Poor: Mini Sculptures by Kwong Chi Kit.
- Hong Kong is World’s Most Racist State. See also: Hong Kong NOT World’s Most Racist State After All.
- Hong Kong’s Rooftop Slums.
- Hong Kong’s Shame – More Squalid Slums Discovered in the New Territories.
- How Hong Kong Would Look With The All Lights Out.
- How Mitt Romney Raised $Millions in HK & Macau.
- Indonesian Maids Rally in Support of Abused Domestic Helper.
- Judges Approve Transsexual Marriage as LGBT Event Planned for Weekend.
- Lantau Incinerator a Load of Old Rubbish.
- Manila Bus Crisis – Mourning Sickness.
- Memo an Affront to HK’s Autonomy as New HK Ai Wei Wei Piece Revealed.
- More Clueless Sexual Assault Comments, Now From HK’s Chief Prosecutor.
- New HK PSA: Shut Up and Love China.
- Poverty & Property: The Claustrophobic Reality of HK Shoeboxes.
- Revealed: CY Leung Met Tony Blair in Secretive June Meeting
- Security Chief Tells Women: ‘Reduce Drinking’ to Get Raped Less.
- Serious Crime Unit Arrests Graffiti Artist as US Criticises HK Human Rights.
- Squalor in Fanling: Slum Dwellings Return to Hong Kong (Photos).
- Tens of Thousands Surround Gov’t HQ Protesting Rejected HKTV Bid.
- The Heart-Warming Kindness of Hong Kong’s Heroes.
- The HK Standard: Ignorant at Best, Racist at Worst.
- The KONY 2012 HK ‘Night Sweep’.
- The McQueue of Shame?
- Time Out/Hemlock Tycoons Feature.
- Two HK School Children Demand GovHK Burn Ivory Stockpile
- Why Does Jackie Chan Hate Hong Kong?
The front lines (in reverse chronological order – most recent first)…
- Left 21 Anti-Poverty Halloween Rally.
- US Whistleblower Edward Snowden Seeks Refuge in HK, 2013. More on the ‘Support Snowden’ rally: Part I: Preparations, Part II: Global media coverage, Part III: Photos, Part IV: Videos.
- Giant Dog Shit is Re-dedicated to Politician Chan Kam-Lam, 2013.
- Tiananmen Vigil 2013. See also: Preview of 2013 Candle-lit Vigil.
- Depraved HK Newspaper Needn’t Fear HK’s Media Watchdogs, 2012. See also: Media Ethics Complaint Against Oriental Daily Upheld.
- Gaza Rally 2012.
- Tiananmen Vigil 2012.
- Why I Attempted to Arrest Tony Blair, 2012. See also: £2420 ‘Arrest Blair’ Bounty Awarded.
- 24-hr Anonymous Guerrilla Art Installation, 2010.
- Anniversary of the Tibetan Occupation, 2010.
- Gaza Flotilla Rally, 2010.
- HK-GZ High Speed Rail Link Protests, 2010.
- Anniversary of the Tibetan Occupation, 2009.
- Annual Democracy Rally, 2009.
- Gaza Rally, 2009.
- Tiananmen Vigil 2009.
- Annual Democracy Rally, 2008.
- Buy Nothing Day, 2008.
- China Human Rights Protest, 2008.
- Olympic Torch Relay, 2008 See also: Olympic Countdown and Civil Liberties Legal Case, 2008.
- Tiananmen Vigil 2008.
- Maxim Magazine Feature, 2006.
- Minimum Wage Protest, 2006.
- Worker’s Rights in Education, 2006.
Rallies/Demonstrations attended by, or covered by, Hong Wrong…
- Lantau Incinerator Protest, 2012.
- LGBT Anti-Discrimination Rally, 2012.
- Shots from HK’s Gay Pride Parade, 2012.
- Shots from the National Education Protests of 2012.
- Occupy Hong Kong, 2011. See also: Occupy Hong Kong a Bit Embarrassing, Asked to Leave, Occupy HK Refuse to Speak to Media and Occupy Hong Kong Evicted (pictures).
Reinterpreting major local news events in English for foreign readers and expats…
- Full Lowdown: 2012 Election Aftermath. Protests Continue, Albert Ho Quits & Racist Candidate Loses.
- Full Lowdown: Battle of the Bullshit – Falun Gong Edition.
- Full Lowdown: HK Lamma Ferry Disaster 2012.
- Full Lowdown: HK Political Shit-storm Ahead of July 1st, 2012. See also: Full Lowdown of Handover Weekend 2012: Protest Minimised, Reporter Removed.
- Full Lowdown: HK’s 2012 National Education Protests. See also: Full Lowdown: Small Victory for Scholarism as 170,000+ Protest National Education.
- Full Lowdown: HK’s Tiananmen Vigil & Protests 2012.
- Full Lowdown: July 1st Pro-Democracy March, 2013. See also: The coolest, most inspiring shots from the 2013 July 1st Rally.
- Full Lowdown: Time Hong Kong Moved on from the Manila Bus Crisis.
- Full Lowdown: Thousands of Bigoted Christian Homophobes Gather for Demo.
- Full Lowdown: US Whistleblower Edward Snowden Seeks Refuge in Free Speech HK