ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: August 14, 2018 05:54 AM GMT
Members of the Hong Kong Journalists Association protest against curbs to the freedom of the press in this 2014 file photo. (ucanews.com photo)
Hong Kong was named the world's freest economy for the 24th year on Feb. 5 but journalists and media groups say this does not include the press as censorship takes root under the growing influence of Beijing.
A recent report on human rights in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Amnesty International said that press freedom is waning as journalists fear reprisals from the central Chinese government.
"Self-censorship by mainstream media was seen as more common last year," Patrick Poon Kar-wai, a researcher at the rights group, told ucanews.com.
"Most of their reports were either pro-Beijing or at least served Chinese interests. For example, when the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Sino-Vatican relations, their in-house columnists were mostly pro-Beijing," he said, describing this as "a worrying trend."
Poon fears the situation will continue to deteriorate as Beijing increasingly involves itself in Hong Kong's affairs and disrupts the local media ecosystem.
"Under such circumstances we are likely to see reporters exercise more caution when reporting on political news," he said.
Daisy Li Yuet-Wah, editor-in-chief of CitizenNews, an online news portal popular in Hong Kong, told ucanews.com how self-censorshipin the city has evolved.
"Self-censorship existed in the Hong Kong media in the 1980s and 1990s but media bosses back then weren't as open about it because they knew it wasn't a good thing," said Li.
"Nowadays they take self-censorship for granted and internalize it, so it becomes natural. Those who fail to do this are seen as unpatriotic troublemakers," she said.
Li said this trend is now evident in all forms of media.
"Media investors need to maintain a good relationship with those in power or they will lose their business," she said.
"The people who manage the newsrooms are well-aware of what their investors want, so of course they toe the line. Even journalists who don't censor themselves know which stories are sensitive and what to avoid."
She said this poses a threat to "our core values."
Basic Law weakened
Hong Kong's press freedom is guaranteed under its Basic Law, a constitutional document adopted in April 1990 about seven years before the handover back to China.
But the protections it affords are getting weaker, Li noted.
This was highlighted on Dec. 27, 2017, when the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) of China allowed parts of the West Kowloon terminus building of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen- Hong Kong Express Rail Link to fall under the control of Beijing.
The Basic Law states that no Chinese laws should be imposed on Hong Kong, but lawmakers in China have been able to interpret this in such loose ways that it can be bent to their will, Li said.
"It doesn't bode well," the award-winning journalist said, adding that the way the government chooses to disseminate information can also be used to stifle the press.
"Previously, whenever a major policy cropped up or a crisis occurred, the government would hold a press conference and officials would answer reporters' questions until all issues had been addressed," she said.
"But not anymore. Take the case of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng. When she was accused of building illegal structures at her residence she never organized a press conference to address those concerns," she added.
"The attitude officials have adopted vis-a-vis the press is quite clear."
In the early days of the handover the central government still cared about how its 'One country, two systems' policy was perceived internationally, said Shirley Yam from the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
As such, it refrained from interfering too much with the Hong Kong market.
"However, especially under the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, China adopted a tougher stance as it aims to control everything," Yam said.
She said the recent acquisition of the English-language SCMP by Jack Ma-owned Alibaba was a sign of the times, given the business group's close ties to the Chinese government.
Previously, mainland investors were banned from making such deals.
Ma and his executives hailed the move as a business deal aimed at countering "too much" negative news about China.
Insiders say that even reporters who work there are now treading more carefully in terms of what they can and cannot say.
"If we look at some of the acquisitions of listed media companies in Hong Kong, we can see from their annual reports that their profit levels are shrinking," she said.
"So we have to ask ourselves: from an investor's point of view, what was to be gained from buying them? What was the real purpose?"