On February 12th Reporters Without Borders, a France-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting press freedom, released its 2014 Press Freedom Index, surveying 180 countries and regions. Hong Kong’s press freedom slid three places, from last year’s 58th to this year’s 61st position, making this is the third year in a row Hong Kong’s press freedom worsens. When this organization first published the index in 2002 Hong Kong was in 18th place.
This report emphasised that China is exerting increasing economic influence on Hong Kong’s media: “media independence [in Hong Kong] is now in jeopardy…The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on Hong Kong media through its ‘Liaison Office’ is increasingly compromising media pluralism.”
Even when using different criteria, survey methods and weighing systems to assess each country or region’s media situation, other watchdog organisations arrived at similar conclusions.
The 2013 Freedom of the Press Index, an annual survey of media independence in 197 countries and regions published by US-based independent organisation Freedom House, which started to monitor threats to media independence in 1980, categorised Hong Kong media’s status quo as a ‘partly free’ state. Hong Kong’s press freedom score, based on its economic, political and legal environment for the media in 2012 was 35, the second highest score (the higher the worse) since 1994, when the organisation first gave Hong Kong a score, 5 points lower than 1997’s 40.
In fact, many Hong Kong citizens expected such a decline. Topics and events concerning press freedom frequently grab the headlines of newspapers and TV news, and attract people’s increasing attention.
Titled Back to a Maoist Future: Press Freedom in China 2013, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)’s sixth annual China Press Freedom Report, claimed Hong Kong’s media industry is “getting worse and worse” and summarised 12 major issues in 2013 that shackled Hong Kong’s press freedom. These include:
- Authorities use the legal system in pursuit of power
- Police targets journalists, fails to stop attacks
- Media owners are intimidated, and premises attacked
- Authorities conceal, alter official information
- ‘Privacy’ is a pretext for restricting information
- Turmoil over issue of new free-to-air TV licenses
- TV stations bar reporters from news group
- Journalists were thrown out of APEC meeting
- Hong Kong journalists are harassed on Mainland
- China’s state media meddles in Hong Kong politics
- Public broadcaster’s independence is under pressure
- Journalists and media outlets face fines and court actions
Within the first two months of 2014, another three events
related to press freedom are seemingly contributing to current anxiety. In January it was disclosed that advertisers from HSBC, Standard Chartered and Bank of East Asia canceled their advertising contracts amounting to HK$200 million with Apple Daily at the end of last year. Similarly, several Chinese-funded companies withdrew their advertising worth HK$10 million from AM730 daily free newspaper.
On January 20, the senior management of Ming Pao decided to abruptly remove its chief editor Lau Chun-to and to appoint Malaysian editor Chong Tien Siong to direct the newspaper, causing concern and discontent among staff members.
And on February 12, outspoken radio host Li Wei-ling was suddenly fired by Commercial Radio without a clear explanation. Ms. Li said her dismissal definitely reflects the suppression of press freedom and freedom of speech by the Hong Kong government.
The gradually deteriorating media landscape these events show not only dampens many media professionals and journalism students’ enthusiasm, but it also worries the general public, dampening its confidence in freedom of expression
According to a poll conducted and published in November 2013 by the Public Opinion Program at Hong Kong University, the percentage of people dissatisfied with freedom of press in Hong Kong is now 25.8%, while the percentage of satisfied people is 52.9%. This leaves a net value – or difference between satisfied and dissatisfied people – of 27.1%, the lowest since 1997, when Hong Kong returned to the PRC and the poll was first conducted. In that year, the difference was 52.4%, with 67.4% of people claiming to be satisfied with the existing freedom of the press in Hong Kong and 15% claiming to be dissatisfied.
To further increase people’s awareness of Hong Kong’s media crisis, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) produced and distributed blue ribbons to over 6,600 marathon runners participating in the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon on February 16.
What is the next? We will see.