Beijing aims to turn Hong Kong media into its mouthpiece

Chinese government's tactics have chilling effect on city's press
Beijing aims to turn Hong Kong media into its mouthpiece

Eddie Chu, a Hong Kong lawmaker, holds a press conference in front of police headquarters in this 2016 file photo. Hong Kong is steadily losing its press freedom, say observers. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
Hong Kong
May 5, 2017
It is well-known that China languishes at the bottom of press freedom rankings but now observers say Beijing is using its increasing economic and political powers to drag Hong Kong down to similar depths.    

The "2017 World Press Freedom Index" by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French-based international organization for journalistic freedom, placed China 176th out of 180 regions. They named China and Vietnam as "the world's biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers" and said China had the largest number of "press freedom predators."

There is now much concern about Beijing's meddling in Hong Kong, an international city that used to enjoy relatively high press freedom but has seen it drop since it became a special administrative region run by communist China. Hong Kong dropped from 69 to 73 in the 2017 RSF rankings.

"Hong Kong is the microphone for dissident voices that are banned in mainland China. These voices are heard by the world thanks to press freedom in Hong Kong. It is the last hope and lighthouse of press freedom in China," Joseph, a Catholic media worker in mainland China, told ucanews.com.

"If there is no media freedom in Hong Kong, freedom of speech in China will be totally neglected. China will become no different from North Korea," he added.

Bruce Lui Ping-kuen, senior lecture at the Department of Journalism in Hong Kong Baptist University, agreed.

"Information about human rights lawyers and activists in China has always leaked via Hong Kong. Even different political factions of the Communist Party of China use the city to release political messages," Lui, a former journalist, told ucanews.com.

Some observers believe these political messages are an attempt to spread rumors to influence the situation in China for their own advantage to create the impression that the Hong Kong media remains independent.

Lui noted that one of the strategies China uses to control Hong Kong's media is through money. The most recent case was Hong Kong-based English daily South China Morning Post coming under the control of internet entrepreneur Jack Ma Yun, one of the richest men in China in April 2016.

According to a 2016 report from the Hong Kong Journalist's Association, the Chinese government or corporations now have direct control or stakes in eight out of 26 mainstream media outlets, 31 percent of the total. Meanwhile, "owners or news heads of more than 80 percent of mainstream media" have benefited from government appointments or awards.

China has implemented a policy "to regain the Hong Kong media" since the 1989 crackdown against the pro-democracy movement in Beijing, the report said. It is "a campaign to exert a controlling influence over the territory's media so that it can be used as the Chinese government's mouthpiece," it said.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Shu Yen University, said traditional printed media costs a huge amount to operate so the Communist Party can buy and control them.

"The Communist regime is using their own communication theory: media have to fulfil their so-called 'social mission' to implement party or government policies and so they justify tightening press freedom in Hong Kong," Lam, a Catholic scholar, told ucanews.com.

Lui said criticism about the local government's stance on issues, like housing and education, could still be free but comment on sensitive issues about the mainland government would be restricted.

"Hong Kong independence, as an example, is something the central government will not tolerate. Some [pro-Beijing] legal scholars are trying to push an opinion that independence ideology is not part of freedom of speech granted by Basic Law," he added.

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Press freedom concerns made the RSF pass over Hong Kong as a location for its first Asian office choosing Taiwan instead. RSF Director Christophe Deloire said they were worried the legal system could not ensure the proper functioning of the organization.

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