Declining Press Freedom in Hong Kong
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
In Hong Kong, where freedom of the press is legislated in both the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, there has been a steady erosion of media freedom over the last 20 years.
Paragraph 3.5 of the Joint Declaration states (note the bold) : The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law...
A decline in press freedom is a clear breach of the Joint Declaration.
Chapter III, Article 27 of the Basic Law declares (note the bold) : “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions; and to strike.”
Since the Basic Law is often officially referred to as HK's "mini constitution", it should be upheld and revered by its citizens. Instead, the various rights and freedoms it outlines have been enacted and defined by HK authorities in a restrictive manner, at the urging of cadres of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to whom such freedoms are an anathema and existential threat. It's a very well known fact that in mainland China the CCP actively censors media in all its forms, so a free press in HK represents a threat to their "unquestionable authority".
In April 2019 it was reported that Hong Kong's rating on the Press Freedom Index had slipped a few places, and in 2020 it seems that history is repeating itself. 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.
According to HK Free Press the city 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. In the report prepared by the French journalism watchdog RSF they say that freedom of the press in HK has been "in free fall" ever since the handover from British rule, reaching its lowest ever point in the index this year.
While there has been some notable attacks by high-ranking government officials directed at public broadcaster RTHK for their reporting on political affairs, there has also been more physical confrontations between Police and journalists reporting street protests. In the current context journalists might think twice before deciding whether to write a story or fear for the potential repercussions that could follow.
This is no storm in a tea-cup - it's all part of a consistent, ongoing strategy.
In April 2020 Police Commissioner Chris Tang lodged two complaints to the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) targeting a satirical program, “Headliner,” for smearing the HK Police Force's reputation and misleading the public. The government subsequently removed all RTHK programs from public channels.
The HK government also accused RTHK of breaching the “one-China” principle by broadcasting a WHO interview on Taiwan. And a world-renowned HK microbiologist named Yuen Kwok-yung retracted an op-ed in Ming Pao on the origin and naming of the Wuhan virus, apparently bowing to pressure from Beijing to control the narrative on the origins of the pandemic.
Cheng, a journalist who works for a local news website, says that self-censorship has increased since the start of the 2019 protests. "The management of some publications doesn't want their reports to look anti-government. For instance, they tell their staff to change a headline that appears to be sympathetic to the protest movement," Cheng told news service DW.
Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) interviewed in January 2020 said that the receding press freedoms was a matter of execution rather than a lack of regulations. He first referred to HK’s Basic Law, Article 27 (see above), but then elaborated further.
“Under Police general orders, Police are required to coordinate with reporters [during] protests,” Mr Yeung indicated. “But on many occasions in the past six months they have adopted violence and use of excessive force in blocking reporters from doing their work.”
HK was ranked 73rd in 2019. The HKJA painted a grim picture then of physical and verbal attacks in its annual report. Things haven't changed twelve months later, thus the need for an independent commission to investigate Police conduct is stronger than ever (see our blog On the evolution of a Police Inquiry).
The SAR's ranking stood at 18th when the index was first created in 2002.
By way of contrast, in 2020 China was ranked 177th as it sought a “new world media order.”
MANY ONGOING ISSUES
One of the ongoing issues facing journalists in HK is that many are barred from attending significant government events. At least ten HK media organisations do not get accredited to cover events such as Chief Executive Lam’s election in March 2017, because the authorities do not recognize media that publish solely online.
The HKJA has been demanding equal treatment for online media for five years but the request curiously continues to be “under examination.” In an age where print media is going out of fashion, and increasingly requires massive financial backing, this is just another form of political censorship that advantages government-backed Mainland Chinese media and the CCP narrative.
Another issue facing media outlets in HK is that The Communications Authority, which is in charge of regulating HK’s media, keeps a tab on problematic owners who threaten Chinese patriotism (see our blog on Chinese nationalism). One of its methods to bring them to heel is to threaten non-renewal of their outlet’s operating licence (see the RSF report: “Beijing’s invisible hand on Hong Kong’s media”).
Cedric Alviani, the head of RSF's East Asia Bureau said the 2020 drop in the rankings was a "direct result of the policy of violence against journalists that was led by the executive and the Police during the demonstrations", and said he expected HK's press freedom ranking to drop even further.
Alviani noted that while it was still possible for journalists in HK to do their work, it is now becoming harder for reporters to receive transparent information.
He said the HK authorities are "consistently showing an unwillingness to answer certain questions from journalists during press conferences", and also there is a tendency of the government to prioritise the "interests of the mainland Chinese regime" over press freedom.
Besides this unwillingness, authorities frequently give responses that are either beguiling or disingenuous. Case in point: In September 2019 a video went viral showing a subdued man surrounded by 30 to 40 police, who appeared to be kicked in the waist in a back alley in Yuen Long in the New Territories. HK police rejected an allegation that officers had kicked an arrested man in a back alley during a clash on the weekend protest in Yuen Long and asked for witnesses to come forward. They say video footage from the scene only shows officers kicking “a yellow object”.
During the police press conference on the following Monday, Vasco Williams, acting senior superintendent for operations in the New Territories’ northern region, said the video, which was shot several floors above the police, was unclear.
“We don’t know what that yellow object is, but there are other videos that are more clear that show the entire incident and there is no malpractice by the police,” he said.
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RSF is not alone in this poor rating of HK press freedom. The HK-based Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) has also surveyed public trust in Hong Kong's press freedom and found that in 2020 net satisfaction with the freedom of the press in HK has dropped dramatically by 39 percentage points to negative 21, registering an all-time low since record began in 1997.
Only 33 percent of the 503 respondents to the PORI survey said they were satisfied with press freedom in the city, as promised under the terms of the 1997 handover to China.
The research findings indicated that "..., 63 percent thought the local news media had scruples when criticizing [Beijing] ... [while] 49 percent thought they had scruples when criticizing the [Hong Kong government]."
Lisa Leung of the Department of Cultural Studies at HK's Lingnan University said in March 2020 that press freedom concerns have dogged the city ever since the handover. "The public has been figuring out from the tone of the press conferences that the government is moving ever closer towards authoritarianism," she said.
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On 17 April 2020 the HKJA filed a judicial review with the High Court in HK,
seeking multiple orders including a declaration that Police conduct represented an unlawful breach of freedom of the press, opinion and expression guaranteed by the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – and Bill of Rights.
Importantly the HKJA asked the court to provide meaningful declarations, identifying how Police duty to journalists should be discharged in practice. The lawyer for the Police, of course, argued that it should not be the court's role to draft such protocol.
Central to the media union’s judicial review application, which is supported by 13 member complaints against officers, is whether police have a duty both to facilitate journalists’ ability to do their jobs and to not hinder them – and to what degree that duty exists. Lawyers for HK's oldest journalists’ union argued before the court that Police have a duty to facilitate rather than hinder journalistic activities, and that the force’s “unlawful” actions during anti-government protests represented a systematic failure.
Lawyer for the HKJA, Philip Dykes, told the court that “When force is used on a journalist with the intent of preventing reporting, it will always be unlawful, because that is not a legitimate use of force by the Police to control the situation.”
Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming reserved judgment and will rule on the case at a later date. Watch this space!
SYSTEMATIC AND PROBLEMATIC
The CCP will be delighted to read the news that press freedom in HK is on the decline. HKers are not! This means that without a functioning Fourth Estate the government and its arms including Police Force, Immigration Department, Education Bureau can all act without full accountability to the citizens of HK who they serve. The HK government and its agencies must not act in politically motivated ways that deliberately and systematically restrict the investigative work of journalists.
In HK the loss of press freedom means that media outlets are castrated, and are on the path to becoming nothing more than portals for transmission of government propaganda. Whatever is embarrassing for those in authority, the unpopular truth, will remain hidden. Incompetence, inefficiency, corruption and other injustice will not be reigned in or challenged. It's so unhealthy for democracy, and for society at large.
See our other blogs related to freedom of the press:
Above: A reporter's camera lens was allegedly damaged by baton from HKPF, during a protest at Yuen Long (April 2020).
Above: Journalist's camera and face pepper-sprayed by an officer of the law.