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Number 1 Shimbun

The press freedom struggle in Hong Kong

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in the former British colony has become a target, as Beijing cracks down on the local media and international correspondents.

 

By Stephen Vines

 

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has grown increasingly intolerant of freedom of expression. Unsurprisingly, the cold winds from the north have gusted down to Hong Kong, as what has been a welcoming attitude by the local authorities toward the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club has turned distinctly chilly.

In rapid succession we witnessed the expulsion of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times Asia news editor, followed by a series of threats to evict the Club from its government-owned premises, a historic building that has been lovingly preserved. There was even a spell of what looked suspiciously like rent-a-crowd demonstrations outside the FCC premises denouncing the Club and its “foreign dog” members.

Maybe foreign correspondents in Hong Kong have become far too complacent. The former British colony has long been a hospitable international media center, the reason that many international media organizations based themselves here to facilitate wider Asian region coverage. Hong Kong has also provided excellent opportunities for covering the vast China story without the many hassles of being based in the Chinese mainland. Moreover, the Hong Kong government made it easy to get visas and did not impose restrictions on journalists doing their jobs.

The swirl of activity targeting the Club began with the hosting of an event featuring a speech by Andy Chan, the leader of the Hong Kong Independence Party (HKIP). Representations had been made to the FCC by China’s foreign ministry over what it described as separatist activity, and there was talk in the air of a ban on the party, including the imposition of penalties for reporting on its activities. (The ban went into effect after the event.)

The Club took the view that providing a platform for all shades of opinion could not be equated with support for any particular opinion and was part of its mission to facilitate freedom of expression. Inevitably this argument got somewhat lost after a vigorous and highly effective campaign was launched by Leung Chun-yin, Hong Kong’s previous Chief Executive, who now appears intent on proving that he is the foremost super patriot in Hong Kong.

Victor Mallet, the Club’s vice-president, got caught up in all this for no greater reason than that the FCC president happened to be away on holiday. As an articulate spokesman for the FCC, Mallet became the public face of this dispute and, for reasons yet to be officially explained, had the renewal of his work permit denied. The government then refused him readmission to Hong Kong following an overseas trip – the kind of treatment that has never before been used against a foreign correspondent.
So far most overseas media organizations are adopting a wait and see attitude over their response to this new hostile atmosphere. There is some hope that excessive zeal on behalf of officials keen to gain brownie points in Beijing might give way to a less aggressive approach.

While one major news organization with its regional headquarters in Hong Kong has already discussed relocation internally, it has yet to take any decision on the matter. It is hard to gauge how individual correspondents working here will respond. One European journalist, for example, has decided to steer clear of reporting on Hong Kong political matters, mirroring the approach toward local news taken by some foreign media reporters based in Singapore, which has a far longer history of intolerance towards criticism. However most people seem to have decided to carry on with business as usual until this becomes untenable.

The FCC itself has reaffirmed its commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and has not taken up the invitation to apologize as suggested by pro-government politicians. It is, nevertheless, taking a lower profile for the time being.

 04 Hong Kong

Club news 
The FCC building in Hong Kong


THESE NEW ATTACKS ON overseas media come at a time when many worrying developments are affecting the local media, as well. Around the same time that the FCC was getting into hot water, the owners and editors of Hong Kong’s major news media companies were summoned to Beijing (only one, the opposition-friendly Apple Daily newspaper, was excluded from this event). As ever when it comes to the way that the Chinese government handles these matters, much was unclear, including why this high level delegation was even in Beijing. Company executives claimed that far from being summoned, it was they who had, for some unspecified reason, asked for the meetings with state and Communist Party officials handling Hong Kong and media matters. After doing the rounds in Beijing, the delegation returned and there was much talk about how Hong Kong’s media freedom, which is enshrined in law, was to be maintained. No longer would it be unfettered, it was said: red lines – though not clearly spelled out – were being drawn, and should not be crossed.

This hardly came as a surprise. It has become increasingly evident that the local media are exercising a high degree of self-censorship and that sensitive topics such as coverage of Hong Kong’s independence movement (which, incidentally, is miniscule) are being handled with extra care. The same goes for Taiwan coverage and the disputes with other countries such as Japan and South Korea. Overshadowing this, and perhaps more significant, is the increasing mainstream media hostility shown towards Hong Kong’s democracy movement and political parties. 

On paper, and indeed in reality, the bulk of Hong Kong’s mass media is not under direct control of the Communist Party. But changes in ownership have ensured that these outlets have become a useful conduit for party propaganda, while carefully maintaining a distance from direct state control that gives them a dose of credibility.

Despite local broadcasting rules which specify that only local residents can control television stations, Hong Kong’s main commercial television station is now controlled by mainland businessmen. More recently, the main English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, has come under the control of Jack Ma, a Communist Party member who is also believed to be China’s richest individual (a juxtaposition that is hardly unknown in the new China). Most other local newspapers are run by individuals and companies that have worked hard to get on the right side of Beijing and proudly display their loyalty credentials.


THIS STILL LEAVES THE Communist Party’s propaganda machine with a problem: although it is easy to seize control of the media, it is far harder to furnish state-controlled outlets with the kind of credibility that is required to get people to pay attention to their turgid contents.

The drift towards pro-government conformity in the mainstream media has been matched by a strong upsurge of online media, where relatively small organizations are attracting very large audiences and beating the long-established media outlets when it comes to breaking news stories. So far, Hong Kong has also escaped the rigid control over the internet which the rest of China experiences.

The mainstream media’s first response was to shrug off or deny the existence of these new media outlets that range from the Chinese-language FactWire (a consistent breaker of news stories) to Stand News and the increasingly influential English-language Hong Kong Free Press. The high level of popularity of radio in Hong Kong has also led to the emergence of a bevy of lively and popular online radio stations.

This burgeoning of new media in Hong Kong coincides with wider developments in the news industry where, even without the impact of official hostility to freedom of expression, traditional media is facing many threats to its existence. Even as the mainstream media scrambles to get onboard the digital age, the reality is that media success is ultimately determined by content. The pressures facing freedom of expression in Hong Kong mean that those who bend to these pressures are condemning themselves to a poorer quality of content. Those who do not bend will not axiomatically produce better content but have more hope of fulfilling public demand for information and analysis.


IT IS HARD TO judge how far authorities will go to control all the local media, but past actions don’t offer much hope for press freedom’s future. After all, none of this even vaguely approaches the level of media censorship on the Chinese mainland, where controls, already strict, are actually tightening as a small army patrols the internet to ensure that critical voices are quickly snubbed out. The limited space that once existed for critical commentary in official publications has also been extinguished and there is no such thing as non-state controlled media.

Hong Kong media may also want to avoid the fate of the local book-publishing industry, which seemed to be of particular concern to Beijing. So-called dissident books can no longer find a printer, let alone outlets for their sale. A number of book publishers have been kidnapped from Hong Kong and thrown in jail across the border, and the biggest bookshop chain in Hong Kong is now under mainland control.

Optimism about the media’s future in Hong Kong is in short supply. And while international media organizations have the option of relocating, the local media does not enjoy the luxury. ❶


Steven Vines
is a Hong Kong-based broadcaster and columnist, and former President of the HKFCC.

Published in: February 2019

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