How Beijing and HK make use of media in Lee Bo case

January 07, 2016 14:55
TVB News highlights a pro-establishment legislator's unverified information about Lee Bo in its primetime news broadcast. Photos: HKEJ, Facebook

Press freedom, one of the Hong Kong's most cherished values, is now at the center of the controversy over the disappearance of Lee Bo and his four colleagues at a Causeway Bay publishing house and bookstore known for their titles that are critical of the Communist Party leadership.

While the pro-democracy camp raises the possibility that their disappearance is an attempt by central authorities to silence criticism, and therefore an assault on press freedom, the pro-establishment side and Beijing itself appear to be taking advantage of this very freedom to float various theories that either tend to cast a bad light on Lee Bo and company, or clear Beijing of any responsibility.

It seems that Hong Kong and China have different concepts of press freedom.

For Hong Kong, it means no intervention from the authorities or owners of media outfits on matters concerning editorial coverage, decision or direction, which should only be guided by professional judgement and the public interest.

For Beijing, however, it means freedom to report positive stories about the nation and its leaders, freedom to come out with negative stories about critics and perceived enemies of the state, and freedom to re-angle, play down or censor stories that tend to embarrass or assail the authorities.

Lee's case touches on a very sensitive issue, which is the "one country, two systems" principle enshrined in the Basic Law.

It is believed that he was arrested by mainland authorities in Hong Kong and taken across the border to face investigation. Lee, in his communication with his wife, affirmed that he is on the mainland and he is helping with an investigation. This is clearly in violation of the Basic Law, which provides that Chinese officials cannot exercise their authority in the special administrative region.

Chinese officials, of course, cannot confirm that they acted in defiance of the Basic Law. 

And so we find Hong Kong officials urging the public to stop making speculations about the case.

Meanwhile, Beijing, through its state media, is trying to show that it has the authority to exercise power in the special administrative region.

Global Times (Chinese edition), a tabloid under the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily which is known for its combative editorial style, said in a commentary that China's law enforcement agencies had every right to investigate Lee and his four colleagues as they were involved in publishing books that are critical of the country's top leadership.

The newspaper also noted that all powerful agencies around the world have their own way of circumventing legal obstacles to get people to cooperate.

In effect, it is indicating that Lee has been arrested by Chinese officials and is being investigated in the mainland, and they have the right to do so.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Independent Commentators Association said in a statement that it's “ridiculous and shocking” for Global Times to say that the sale of politically-sensitive books in Hong Kong warrants a mainland investigation.

The two journalist organizations said that that would be a breach of the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law which safeguard Hong Kong's freedom of expression and freedom of publication.

Meanwhile, pro-Beijing politicians and media outlets are also using Hong Kong's press freedom to insinuate that the Lee and his associates were being investigated for violation of Chinese laws, rather than for anything related to the publication of anti-Beijing articles or books.

So, when pro-Beijing lawmaker Ng Leung-sing told a Legislative Council meeting that sources had told him that Lee and four other people had been arrested by mainland law enforcers for consorting with prostitutes, that paved the way for pro-Beijing media to play up the issue and bolster the impression that the men's disappearance had something to do with personal issues rather than having a political color.

It is expected of professional journalists to handle Ng's revelation with care as it could not be taken seriously unless other sources could be found to confirm it. Otherwise, it would just be a piece of rumor or, at best, a story that merits a small item under the "digest" section.

However, Television Broadcasts, the city's biggest television network, decided to run Ng's story as its headline news on Tuesday night's primetime news broadcast.

The network's decision to treat Ng's rumor as a solid story is apparently intended to give the public the impression that the five missing men violated Chinese laws, thereby shifting public attention away from the question about the propriety and legality of Beijing authorities exercising their power across the border.

On social media, one netizen observed that the elderly customers in his favorite restaurant were now discussing about how many prostitutes were involved in the case, rather than how the Chinese authorities were able to arrest Lee and company in Hong Kong and take them to the mainland. That's the impact of the TVB news.

However, many are concerned. More than 4,000 Hong Kong viewers have filed complaints with the Communications Authority, the city's media regulator, accusing TVB of spreading rumors and unverified information in its news program and violating the requirements for its broadcasting license. The authority is looking into the complaints.

It is indeed sad that freedom of the press in Hong Kong is being used by the pro-establishment camp to promote Beijing's interests, rather than that of the general public.

Hong Kong readers and viewers should therefore be discerning in the face of this barrage of rumors and misinformation.

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EJ Insight writer