14 November 2019
Television Broadcasts Ltd. drew 73 complaints to the Communications Authority for biased reporting. Photo: TVB
Television Broadcasts Ltd. drew 73 complaints to the Communications Authority for biased reporting. Photo: TVB

Protest coverage: What it tells us about HK press freedom

Good or bad, depending on which side you’re on, the democracy protests in Hong Kong this past week have been great copy for the news media.

They gave headline writers a smart new teaser (“Umbrella Revolution”) and commentators another excuse to weigh in on the giant bugbear across the border.

The foreign media rose to the occasion with their wall-to-wall coverage that included stories proclaiming Hong Kong students as the world’s most polite protesters.

China hid behind its Great Firewall to block news out of Hong Kong, lifting the veil ever so slightly to give mainlanders a glimpse of the “chaos” and how it was “choking” ordinary people.

In Hong Kong, media coverage ran from timid to biased, with nothing much in between.

That’s perhaps another sign of Hong Kong’s changed media landscape since the 1997 handover and the increasing challenges to its core values, particularly free speech.

Apple Daily, owned by democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai, unabashedly carried the protest flag but establishment newspapers were more sedate and less committal.

Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB), the bigger of Hong Kong’s two free-to-air television broadcasters, drew 73 complaints to the Communications Authority, the media watchdog, for biased reporting.

There is a growing perception that TVB has thrown itself at the disposal of the government to help it win the public relations campaign for Hongkongers’ hearts and minds.

What impact it might have on TVB’s future remains to be seen but if the past several days are any indication, it’s something the station should worry about.

People used to tuning into TVB as a reliable source of information have been increasingly turning to cable and online channels for news about the protest.

These include Cable TV and NOW TV, the most popular news app on Apple’s app store this past week.

With limited scope in the mainstream media for critical analysis, several online websites such as, Hong Kong In-media, VJ Media and The House Bloggers have been offering readers a platform for open discussion.

Hong Kong Television Network, which last year caused controversy for the government after it was denied a terrestrial license, reached out to audiences online.

Frontline journalists no doubt did their best to cover the protests but their efforts were only as good as the decisions of their bosses — how their stories should run, if at all.

Every media organization will deny engaging in self-censorship, but in Hong Kong, there is a growing fear that the press, although still an effective government fiscalizer and public watchdog, is leaning toward a “do no harm” mindset toward Beijing.

Also, as long as Hong Kong has a media regime that periodically reviews license renewals, there will always be some concern about a suddenly iron-fisted government.

If not that, at least a government that co-opts the press, the way China’s ruling elite uses state media.

The democracy protests are not only a fight for genuine universal suffrage but also for free speech and other core values on which Hong Kong built its success.

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Some media organizations have been accused of misleading readers by describing attacks on protesters by opposing groups as clashes between the two sides. Photo: HKEJ

Journalists covering the protests have not been spared from attacks. Ten have been injured, according to reports. Photo: RTHK

EJ Insight writer