HK press freedom seen eroding as Beijing makes presence felt

February 13, 2015 17:09
A pro-democracy activist reads Apple Daily at the height of the Occupy protests last year. Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong, which hosts the Asia bureaus of many of the world's biggest media players, is proud of its highly competitive news industry. 

Its media practitioners have long been known to be quite zealous in their role of monitoring the actions of government officials and business leaders, bravely reporting on corruption and other shenanigans that could hurt the public interest.

However, this hard-earned reputation, backed by a vibrant atmosphere of press freedom, appears to be fading. Nowadays many local media outlets are acting more like government mouthpieces rather than independent watchdogs as Chinese rule becomes increasingly felt in the territory.

While press freedom is hard to quantify, the annual World Press Freedom Index released annually by the group Reporters without Borders gives us an idea of how precipitous has been the decline of the city in the global rankings.

In 2002, Hong Kong ranked 18th out of 134 countries and regions whose performance is ranked "according to a range of criteria that include media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate”.

But the city has declined to No. 70 in this year's index, down from No. 61 last year. This is the city's worst ranking since 2002.

In the Asia Pacific, Hong Kong ranked 10th, way behind New Zealand and Australia which ranked the top two in the region. Taiwan ranked No. 5 in the region, the highest among Chinese communities.

Hong Kong's steep fall in the rankings reflects how local media outlets have been adapting to changes in the industry's environment amid increasing intervention from the north through both subtle and not so subtle means.

This situation has become more apparent in the past three years since Leung Chun-ying became the city's chief executive. And as Beijing promotes an ideology that eschews the Western mindset, universal principles such as democracy and press freedom appear to be less important in the pursuit of national unity and economic growth.

At the height of the pro-democracy Occupy protests last year, the public, the mass consumers of news, could not help but notice that certain media outlets appeared to be toning down their coverage of the street protests.

In fact, this matter came to the surface when staff members of the media outlets themselves rose to complain about attempts by senior editors to soften news coverage that tended to put people from the establishment in bad light or promote the cause of the opposition.

It now appears that the "new norm" in many media organizations is to avoid coverage of negative aspects of government officials and their policies while encouraging news that show the dark side of the pan-democratic camp.

The administration of CY Leung has played a key role in limiting press freedom by showing preference for "loyal and friendly" media outlets in granting interviews.

There are at least two Chinese newspapers that have scored the beat when it comes to reporting important government policies as well as interviews with senior government officials. But one will notice that along with those exclusives, commentaries published by the two titles tend to be mild in criticizing officials while generous in defending and singing praises to the government.

Hong Kong media outlets still enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy in making editorial decisions, but the exercise of such autonomy is more often seen in the coverage of non-political issues.

Even without any visible pressure from management, editors and frontline journalists will have to consider the impact of their reports and commentaries on the media owners' business interests on the mainland.

There was an air doubt and suspicion among the editorial staff of Ming Pao Daily News, a publication owned by Malaysian business tycoon Tan Sri Datuk Tiong Hiew King, when a new chief editor was appointed for the newspaper.

And the chief editor's recent unilateral decision to downgrade the prominence of an investigative report on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests appears to support such concerns about Ming Pao's editorial direction.

During the 79-day Occupy movement, press freedom was clearly under threat when a group of pro-Beijing protesters blocked the headquarters of Next Media, the publisher of Apple Daily, to express their anger over newspaper owner Jimmy Lai's participation in the pro-democracy campaign.

The action, which lasted for almost a week, disrupted the normal operations of the newspaper. It was an unmistakable signal from the pro-Beijing camp that it does not tolerate and it has the means to suppress opposing views.

Meanwhile, Taiwan continues to enjoy press freedom in view of its democratic political system. Its vibrant news industry has given full play to unconstrained public debate on the pros and cons of bolstering ties with the mainland despite determined efforts by pro-Beijing forces to push the island to unify with China.

On the other hand, Hong Kong's media industry, which is under the control of parties with economic, if not political, ties with the mainland, could no longer be as aggressive as an invisible hand seems to be holding it back.

But journalists have to keep their faith. There is also the internet which offers a still unconstrained platform to speak out the truth.

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EJ Insight writer