Supporting independent media integral to keeping Hong Kong’s press freedoms afloat

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Experts weigh in on how Hong Kong can protect the ailing state of its press freedoms.

As Hong Kong’s press freedoms continue to decline, tensions between Hong Kong’s staff and the police force have escalated over the last eight months of anti-government protests sweeping the SAR.

Significant cases such as an Indonesian reporter who lost the ability to see in her right eye and others who have been pepper-sprayed and forcibly handled by police at protests have contributed to the derision targeted against law enforcement. 

Foreign journalists have also been denied entry to Hong Kong, raising further concerns from press freedom advocates such as international NGO Reports Without Borders.

“Hong Kong is the freest place in China. It is a symbol that represents the best the Chinese citizens could ever hope for in terms of freedom. So the more freedoms are reduced in Hong Kong, the harder it will be for the Chinese outside of Hong Kong to claim these freedoms,” said Cédric Alviani, East Asia head of Reporters Without Borders.

Rolling down the hill of press freedoms

The anti-extradition law movement isn’t the first time journalists have clashed with law enforcement. During the 2014 Occupy movement, there were incidents in which police officers used force against journalists whose press associations were clearly identified, creating tensions and a lack of trust towards the force, which has become particularly inflamed with Hong Kong’s ongoing unrest.

Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking has fallen from 18th place in 2002 to 73rd in 2019. A decrease in global transparency and a number of controversial incidents contributed to this steep decline. 

A comparative chart of Hong Kong’s press freedoms rankings from 2013 to 2019 from Reporters Without Borders.

Events in 2018 contributed greatly to the ranking results, which Alviani noted was one of the worst years for journalists in Hong Kong.

That year, Victor Mallet, a journalist with the Financial Times and vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), had his visa extension to Hong Kong denied after chairing an event with a local politician the Hong Kong government found objectionable, effectively barring him from the territory. 

A number of journalists have also been denied entry to Hong Kong during the protests; notably the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, who for the first time was blocked from entering the SAR in mid-January.

Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) remarked that the receding press freedoms was a matter of execution rather than a lack of regulations. In Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Article 27 states: “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication”.

“Under police general orders, police are required to coordinate with reporters [during] protests,” Mr Yeung said. “But on many occasions in the past six months they have adopted violence and use of excessive force in blocking reporters from doing their work.” 

He argued that the police are responsible for facilitating the media’s work, but have done the opposite – even posing physical threats to the safety of reporters in their operations, which includes targeting a journalist when they pepper spray and firing rubber bullets and bean bag bullets directly at journalists.

Independent media HK’s beacon of hope

China’s influence is also encroaching on Hong Kong’s media freedoms. According to Alviani, many media outlets in Hong Kong and around the world have been purchased by China,  affecting the bias and coverage of the news published on these channels. He posited that independent media crucial to the future of press freedoms

“Without independent journalism it’s impossible to guarantee the respect of the rule of law and human rights. Freedom of the press is an invaluable asset that Hong Kong has to preserve and  the world has to help it preserve.”

Staying financially afloat and not succumbing to China’s media influence are the main obstacles standing in the way of maintaining free press in Hong Kong. Continued support from the international community is also integral to raising awareness to the issue. 

Although Mr Yeung held a more pessimistic outlook, saying that the “future is still bleak” and press freedoms in the city are continuously “shrinking”, he believes the public interests weigh in favour of independent news outlets.

“Despite the many difficulties those media are facing, ordinary citizens are more willing to support independent media.”

The HKJA is in the process of a judicial review case filed in complaint against the police commissioner for the unlawful acts of officers when handling reporters, as well as in scrutiny of HK’s police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). 

Other endeavours of the HKJA to advocate for press freedoms include introducing laws on archives and access of information, but Yeung lamented that progress has been “extremely slow”.

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