POLITICS – Full Lowdown: 2 New Reports Slam Hong Kong Media Self-Censorship


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.

via AFP/Getty

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.

cpj.org/2014/02/attacks-on-the-press-hong-kong-analysis.php

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.

Click for an interactive version of the long-running HKU study

Click for an interactive version of the long-running HKU study

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”.

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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.

Last month, 90 scholars urged the Ming Pao not to waver in their editorial policy, via Epoch Times.

Last month, 90 scholars urged the Ming Pao not to waver in their editorial policy, via Epoch Times.

Meanwhile, three journalists at the Hong Kong Economic Journal complained to the CPJ that they were being ordered by supervisors to write fewer critical reports about Hong Kong’s leader CY Leung…

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?

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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.

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Pro-democracy lawmakers call for a debate on press freedom, June 2013 via Inmedia.

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.

Hong Kong’s ranking in Reporters Without Border's Press Freedom Index dropped 4 places in one year.

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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.

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A report from last year regarding Hong Kong’s declining press freedom ranking:

Archive of political posts and coverage…

The front lines (in reverse chronological order – most recent first)…

Rallies/Demonstrations attended by, or covered by, Hong Wrong…

Reinterpreting major local news events in English for foreign readers and expats…