How press freedom in HK is being destroyed

January 12, 2015 12:53
Press freedom in Hong Kong is in a precarious state as Beijing-friendly chief editors resort to self-censorship while advertising boycotts squeeze out pro-democracy media. Photo: Bloomberg

Every time a Hong Kong media organization changes hands or an outspoken chief editor is replaced, ripples are caused in the industry as concern deepens that freedom of the press in the city is in peril.

Some members of the public argue we should not read too much into normal business transactions or personnel changes.

Yet the truth is that the owner and senior management of a media organization have various means – and some underhand options – at their disposal to silence a senior editor or correspondent who they consider is politically incorrect or has crossed the line in scrutinizing the government.

One example is TVB’s decision to demote a front-line assignment editor to a backroom position after he refused to tone down the voice-over on exclusive footage in which seven police officers were seen brutally punching and kicking a handcuffed Occupy Central protester.

As with all commercial entities, the management of a media organization has absolute power when it comes to personnel changes, and the boss does not owe an explanation to anyone.

When it comes to recruitment, management also has the final say.

Fresh college graduates have now become the darlings of some pro-Beijing publishers in Hong Kong, not only because they are paid far less than veteran reporters.

A more important reason is that young job starters are generally obedient and won’t resist orders or interference from management in editorial affairs.

And as more newspapers turn wary in reporting and commenting on Hong Kong and mainland affairs, it is said that graduates from overseas have an edge in securing a job in the industry, since they may not take as strong a pro-democracy stance as local grads when reporting the news.

Resource allocation is another oft-used method to play down news stories that may offend the government or Beijing.

For instance, without reducing the volume of coverage, a chief editor may streamline the operations of the China news desk and lay off half the staff reporters. As a result, more news reports and propaganda from the mainland’s state broadcasters will have to be used.

More resources may also be poured into the business news team, for example, so that fewer political commentaries criticizing the authorities will be carried.

Similarly, a columnist who always finds fault with the government can be removed in the name of “revamping the newspaper's layout”.

Most of Hong Kong’s electronic media broadcast live the daily afternoon police briefings throughout the Occupy movement, although most of the time the senior officers merely repeated what the government had said.

By contrast, the mainstream media seldom took any notice of the speeches given by student leaders and Occupy participants almost every night in the Admiralty protest zone.

Some may think press freedom in Hong Kong remains vibrant, as the city is home to numerous newspapers and radio and television broadcasters.

Yet, the primary source of income for any media organization is advertising. When Beijing exerts pressure by economic means, no one is immune.

Beijing doesn’t have to give any orders. Should it merely hint at its dislike of a certain newspaper, its local lackeys and the businessmen who fawn on the authorities in the hope of advancing or protecting their commercial interests on the mainland will cancel their advertisements in the offending publication.

It has long been known that many mainland-controlled enterprises operating in Hong Kong never place advertisements in newspapers the editorial stance of which Beijing considers “unfair and hostile”.

Last year, it was rumored that several heavyweight local banking and property firms had joined the boycott.

In the case of media outlets who refuse to submit meekly, it is believed, although hard to prove, that Beijing has numerous ways to silence them and squeeze them out – from a malicious takeover to a well-orchestrated cyberwar to paralyze their websites and mobile services.

Violence has been directed at local media firms and their heads and employees on several occasions, though those who ordered the attacks have rarely been identified.

In 1998, famed news commentator Albert Cheng King-hon was ambushed by hired thugs and suffered serious injuries.

Last year, former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to was brutally hacked with a meat chopper in broad daylight.

Local media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying has endured a series of threats and attacks, the latest was in the early hours Monday, when a masked man threw what was believed to be a firebomb at his home on Kadoorie Avenue in Ho Man Tin. 

Another firebombing at around the same time caused a blaze at the entrance to the offices of Lai's Next Media, which publishes the outspoken Apple Daily newspaper, in Tseung Kwan O.

In an era in which information flow is largely free and unrestricted, it certainly isn't easy to brainwash readers with a particular ideology.

However, once the media industry has taken sides with the government and begins to report and present news in a mouthpiece-like manner, there's a real possibility that, given time, the audience’s mindset will eventually be changed.

Hong Kong has experienced an alarming slide on the annual Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

The city was ranked 61st last year. It was 34th in 2010.

--Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer