Hong Kong media in shackles under Beijing’s tightening control

Komal Gupta:

The city is no longer the vibrant press hub that it earlier used to be

In the last two decades, Hong Kong has gone from being 12th on the press freedom index in 2002 to 80th in 2020. The city enjoyed a high degree of freedom of speech even when it was a British colony. In 1997 Hong Kong was handed over to China, after being a British colony for 99 years, under the condition that Hong Kong’s economic and social system, as well as its way of life, would remain unchanged, and that rights like freedom of speech, press, etc would be ensured by the law.

China adhered to these conditions till the first decade. This is because at that time Hong Kong was easily China’s most economically productive city. Before the handover, in 1993, Hong Kong had a $120 billion economy, which was a quarter the size of China’s entire economy. But with the fast-paced growth of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and others, Hong Kong went from making up 27 percent of China’s economy in 1993 to just 3 percent in 2017, undermining its economic relevance and leaving lesser reasons for China to respect its autonomy.

The impact was seen on the media as well. Subtle political and economic pressure was being created on media outlets. Media bosses were being co-opted, publications and television channels that were critical of the government began losing advertising revenue, and some media companies were taken over by pro-Beijing figures. This brought an editorial shift and forced media to self-censor their content, avoid stories that showed Beijing in a bad light and underplay negative news for the government.

Laws regulating the media

Article 27 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong ensures freedom of press and publication and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under Article 39 of the Basic Law protects it. There are 31 ordinances that directly govern the media, out of which, the Official Secrets Ordinance and Public Order Ordinance are said to be used by the state to undermine press freedom.

Press freedom violations

Despite freedom of press being guaranteed by law in Hong Kong, the Communist Party ruled China has continuously tried to control the media in the city. Police brutality and self-censorship are the main reasons behind the drop in Hong Kong’s ranking on the press freedom index.

During the 2014 umbrella movement, 28 journalists were attacked by police, while masked thugs obstructed loading of copies of The New York Times and Apple Daily, a newspaper critical of the government, on delivery trucks.

At the time of the 2019 pro-democracy protests, which is one of the most live-streamed social unrest in history, several journalists were harassed, searched and humiliated by the police. Some were even manhandled, pepper-sprayed and detained by the police despite having identified themselves as journalists. Several women journalists reported that they were sexually harassed by police officers. An Indonesian journalist Veby Mega Indah was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet, while another reporter from Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) was hit by a petrol bomb. Several student journalists were also attacked by the police.

Since many of Hong Kong’s media outlets are owned by local tycoons having business ties in China, many of them self-censored their content and mostly maintained an editorial line that was acceptable to the government in their coverage of the protests. Some newspapers even forced journalists to give headlines that were less in favor of the protest movement and to include more voices supporting the government.

National Security Law

Last year, in June, China introduced the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which criminalizes any act of terrorism, secession, subversion, collusion with foreign or external forces. However, a clear definition of the mentioned acts was not provided. This raised heightened worries that the law would make it much easier to arrest protesters and journalists, and curb freedom of speech.

Jimmy Lai, the CEO of Apple Daily was arrested in June last year under this law for being suspected of colluding with foreign forces. The newspaper has been highly critical of the government and became extremely popular across Hong Kong for its coverage of the umbrella protests and the pro-democracy protests. Subscribing to Apple Daily has become an act of defiance against the government among the Hong Kong people.

The newspaper used to sell 50,000 copies a day, however, after Lai’s arrest, this figure increased 10 times and in two days its share price increased 11 fold.

New Accreditation Rules

In September last year, police came up with the new accreditation rules, which state that only journalists from internationally renowned foreign outlets or from media organizations that are registered with the government’s information system will be recognized by the police force.

The new rules will bar freelancers and student journalists from police press conferences and non-public events. This has raised concerns that the rules may be used to curb independent and student journalism, which played a crucial role in bringing global attention to the 2019 pro-democracy movement.