Survey: Government Manipulation Eroded Press Freedom

An overwhelming number of journalists – 86.9 percent of those surveyed – say press freedom in Hong Kong has deteriorated significantly under the Donald Tsang administration. They put it all down to a tightening grip on the flow of information and obstruction of news coverage. These findings have been revealed by the Hong Kong Journalists Association survey.

The results confirm a worrying trend in the industry, especially when compared against a similar survey by HKJA in January 2007. There is a 28.5 percent increase among those who see that press freedom has been further eroded.

It is significant that the government’s tighter grip on the flow of information now surpasses self-censorship as the main factor in erosion of press freedom when compared with the 2007 findings.

The industry-wide survey conducted by the HKJA in April in which 1154 questionnaires were sent out, with 663 filled in and returned. A total of 57.2 percent of 663 respondents said that Hong Kong obviously enjoyed less press freedom while 29.7 percent found the situation “a bit less” compared to the period when Donald Tsang became chief executive in 2005. Only 6.2 percent of respondents saw no change in press freedom while 2.7 percent said Hong Kong enjoyed more press freedom.

An absolute majority (92.7 percent) of the 576 respondents who felt that press freedom had diminished attributed the regression to tighter control over the flow of information and obstruction of news coverage.

This is followed by self-censorship in the industry (71 percent), interference from the government in Beijing and its Liaison Office in Hong Kong (67.5 percent) and pressure from the business sector and conglomerates (35.9 percent). The total is more than 100 percent since respondents could make more than one choice.

Although self-censorship was not seen as the main instrument for erosion of press freedom, its severity is actually on the rise. According to the survey, 79.2 percent respondents believe that self-censorship now is more serious than at the beginning of Donald Tsang’s term in 2005. Only 2.4 percent believe there has been improvement. Furthermore, 35.9 percent of respondents admitted that they themselves or their supervisors practiced self-censorship in the past twelve months, while 37.6 percent denied the practice of self-censorship and 26.5 percent said they didn’t know. It is similar to the 2007 survey, in which 29.5 percent admitted they themselves practised self-censorship while 39.6 percent said their colleagues and supervisors did so.

For the 238 respondents who admitted to self-censorship, the following areas were most affected: downplaying issues or information unfavourable to conglomerates that wield strong influence over advertising (40.3 percent), downplaying information unfavourable to the Central Government (37 percent), downplaying issues or information detrimental to the media owners or their interests (34.5 percent), slanting news in favour of chief executive candidate (33.6 pecent), downplaying information unfavourable to the SAR Government (28.6 percent) and slanting news in favour of the SAR Government (23.5 percent).

In addition, News workers say the following policies have most affected press freedom during the Tsang administration: Spot news information being controlled by the police and the Fire Services Department (57 percent); releasing more official footage and articles and fewer news events being accessible to reporters (41.3 percent); off-the-record briefings increasing tremendously (23.8 percent); and a government proposal to criminalise stalking (16 percent).

Not surprisingly, 34.5 percent respondents regard the blatant infringement of press freedom during the chief executive election period, such as the Liaison Office pressuring Hong Kong Economic Journal and Sing Pao altering the content of commentator Johnny Lau’s column article, as the most serious attacks on press freedom in the past seven years.

The HKJA urges the government to legislate an access to information act so as to create an open government. This can fundamentally change the secretive and suppressive ways of undermining press freedom. If no such measures are taken to protect our freedoms, we are afraid that this core value of press freedom as well as the status of Hong Kong as a regional information hub will be harmed.

Hong Kong Journalists Association

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《成報》突停劉銳紹專欄 記協深表憤怒(Chinese Only)