The publication of this annual report comes as Hong Kong marks the 20th anniversary of its return to China, with Beijing increasingly encroaching on the city’s autonomy in an all-encompassing manner. Worries that freedom of expression in general and press freedom in particular will be further harmed are on the rise, especially when unprofessional mainland media practices spill over to the Hong Kong media. “We must stay vigilant to safeguard our rights,” says Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) chairman Chris Yeung.
The increased pressure from Beijing is a reflection of its change in Hong Kong policy over the years as tension between two systems ballooned. The 2017 Annual Report, titled Two Systems Under Siege, notes that if Beijing took a back-seat role before 2003, it moved up to the front to monitor the driver after the mass protest against national security legislation in that year. After President Xi Jinping came to power and the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement in Hong Kong, Beijing moved into the driver’s seat.
The most recent example of Beijing’s hardline stance came in a speech by the country’s No 3 official, Zhang Dejiang. He emphasised “one country” over “two systems”, denounced any discussion of self-determination or independence for Hong Kong and called on the special administrative region to move forward with national security legislation, which the HKJA fears could have a serious chilling effect on media freedoms.
The chilling effect will exacerbate the worsening problem of self-censorship as Hong Kong media outlets controlled by mainland interests conduct and report on “forced confessions” and muzzle dissenting voices. The HKJA fears these trends will increase as more mainland interests take stakes in media organisations. By year’s end, with the addition of i-Cable, nine out of 26 mainstream media outlets will be under mainland control or have mainland stakes, raising the proportion to 35 per cent. In addition, more than 85 per cent of media owners or top newsroom managers have been incorporated in various ways into the Chinese or Hong Kong establishments.
There has been no progress in giving additional statutory protection to freedom of expression and press freedom, with no sign of freedom of information or archives laws and no response yet from continued HKJA calls for the government to recognise digital-only journalists – despite a critical report by the Ombudsman and a court case initiated by the association seeking to force the government’s hand on the issue.
The swearing in of a new chief executive – Carrie Lam – on July 1 should in theory raise hopes that the government can adopt a more media-friendly approach than her predecessors. In this respect, the HKJA notes that Mrs Lam signed its press freedom charter during her election campaign.
The charter is a pledge to protect press freedom, seek to enact freedom of information and archives laws, allow professional internet media journalists to attend government press conferences and not enact national security legislation until consensus is reached in society.
The HKJA in its Annual Report urges the new administration to take immediate action to defend Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy; refrain from enacting national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law until society reaches a consensus on the issue; enact freedom of information and archives laws to ensure that Hong Kong residents, including journalists, have proper access to government information and documents; and grant online media reporters carrying out legitimate journalistic work equal access to government facilities and news feeds.
Hong Kong Journalists Association
July 2, 2017