HKJA Submission to United Nations Human Rights Committee on Press Freedom from the Perspective of Hong Kong Journalists

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stipulated that her citizens enjoy freedom of speech and of the press[1]. Despite the written guarantee, numerous citizens been penalized for exercising their freedom of speech and local journalists face mounting up pressure of censorship. The worst situation in the past three decades comes at last five years. Even Hong Kong reporters who worked in mainland china feel the heat which will be the focus of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) in this submission.

Manipulation of Accreditation

 Although Hong Kong is one of a Special Administrative Region of PRC, Hong Kong reporters, like their foreign colleagues, have to apply for accreditation before heading to cover news stories on the mainland China. For correspondents stationed in mainland, they have to get accreditation from the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the All-China Journalists’ Association. For reporters work on the mainland on ad hoc basis, they should go to the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong and apply for temporary press cards before heading to the mainland for assignment. This new rule came at February 2009, which replaced the similar rule governed Hong Kong reporters since the wake of the June 4th 1989.

With one specified topic and a single location for each trip clearly printed on it, the temporary press card lasted for a month for every single application. It could be considered as illegal for Hong Kong reporters to cover news on the mainland without such pre-authorized accreditation.

However, not every media outlets have equal access to the accreditation system. The HKJA learns that media outlets classified as ‘unfriendly’ will not get the temporarily press card. The Liaison Office just ignores the applications, without reject or approves it. The Next Media, the Open Magazine and the Cheng Ming Magazine all face this difficulty.

For the majority whose applications will be processed by the authority, the granting of press card means the exposure of the news assignment plan. Comparing to past practices, Hong Kong reporters are effectively subject to more barriers when they try to cover some sensitive issues, no matter in social, economic or political terms, on the mainland. As the liaison office will pass on the reporter’s information such as name, mobile number and number of their home return permit to regional authority, they will undoubtedly made easier for being trailed or followed and deterred by those sent from the local authority.

To avoid being trailed or deterred, journalists cover sensitive news story usually go to the mainland on their own risk. In most cases, they would not escape the dragnet of the local officials who try to cover their malpractices. The most recent and outrageous case took place in early September in 2012.[2] Two reporters with Ming Pao, a Hong Kong-based Chinese language newspaper, were detained by local police in Shaoyang, Hunan province, for a total of 44 hours and deleted the pictures they took before being forced to redo the interviews under surveillance, after they were found that they had talked to Li Wangling, the younger sister of Li Wangyang who died mysteriously in a hospital ward a couple of days after the 23th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on student-led democratic movement in Tiananmen in 1989.

Sometimes even those who are entitled to conduct their interviews could get into deep troubles. On 12 August 2009, without search warrant, several Chengdu police officers in uniform came and had thorough searches of the hotel rooms in which Now TV reporter Wong Kar-yu and her crew were accommodated. As a correspondent based in Beijing then, Wong was sent to the southwestern city in Sichuan province to cover the trial of local activist Tan Zuoren, who stood trial on the day after being charged with inciting subversion of state power.

The police spent around six hours to search the reporters’ bags and suitcases but turned out found nothing suspected at all. The police suddenly retreated when the hearing of Tan had finished. It is reasonably suspected that the so-called search was a smoke screen to deter the media from covering the trial.

In the following month, three Hong Kong reporters, namely Lam Tsz-ho and Lau Wing-chuen with TVB and Lam Chun-wai with Now TV, were tied up, handcuffed and beaten by police, even after they had shown them their press cards while covering protests against mysterious syringe attack in Urumqi, the regional capital of northwestern Xinjiang.

        Worse though, the possession of press cards issued by central departments may disregard by local authorities who tried to cover up. The most vivid case came at Sichuan Wenchuan earthquakes in May 2008. Local authorities asked all reporters went back to Chengdu to get a special press pass issued by them. Of course, no reporter could get this special press pass finally.

With all the faults of the accreditation system, we urge the Committee to call for abolishment of the system. It is especially unfair for the media of Hong Kong, as well as Macau, who have been part of PRC.

 Deprivation of Right to Ask

 Asking question is the basic tool for reporters to gather information and to perform their legitimate role. To suppress the media from asking is an infringement of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Regrettably, leaders of PRC tried hard not to be asked embarrassing questions and led to the bar of raising question in functions that open to the press.

Since the open door policy of China in 1978, media have had numerous chances to cover events that Chinese leaders attended, especially the duty visit of the Hong Kong leader to the sovereign. Journalists spare no efforts in asking questions that are in the interest of Hong Kong community. However, according to journalists’ recollection, it became harder since 2006, if not earlier. The information officers of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Office warned reporters not to asked question to the central leaders and risk deprivation of news covering alike afterward otherwise.

After several years’ practices, such no-question arrangement becomes a norm. No one dares to cross this tangible ‘red line’ even though there is no information officer on the spot. A case at point took place in 2011 when Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, met with Hu Jintao, the President of PRC, during Tsang’s duty visit to Beijing.

No reason was given to the change. Guess from reporters pointed to the ‘unflavourable’ experience of Hu Jintao in 2004. During his trip to Egypt, Hu was shot in his casual dress by Hong Kong cameraman. The retinue of Foreign Ministry took radical measures to penalize the media. All Hong Kong reporters were locked in the business centre of the hotel and press accreditations were confiscated. Press arrangements of the following activities of President Hu were cancelled.

After the incident, embedded journalists have no chance to see Hu other than arranged press coverage. The officials even set up screens in the lobby of the hotel so as to block the media who waited there from filming or photographing Hu, not least to raise question.

The change of leaders’ relatively open attitude to the embedded journalists to a closed one varied in time. However, it seems that the change usually arose after unflavourable comments or so-called embarrassing questions.

In early February 2009, Xi Jinping, then Chinese Vice-President, lashed out at some foreigners in front of local Chinese community during his trip to Mexico, by accusing them, though unidentified, of having nothing better to do after making their stomachs full, but kept pointing their fingers at what China was doing.

        “Firstly China does not export revolution, secondly we don’t export hunger and poverty and thirdly we don’t make waves with you,” said Xi. “What else can you say about us?”

This piece of news provided China watchers at home and abroad a clue to understand Xi’s political stance, and his personal trait as well, to a certain extent. However, this was made on the expenses of Hong Kong journalists being summoned and scold by the acolytes of the foreign ministry of the state visit.

In 2012, during XI’s visit to America, his acolytes follow suite of Hu to set up screens in the lobby. Hong Kong embedded journalists neither had the chance to see Xi in person nor attended any pool arrangement.

For Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, who is more friendly to media, closed the door later in 2010. After Liu Xiaobo was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize, acolytes of Wen would warned embedded reporters not to ask any question or approached Wen. In 2011, Wen met with Hong Kong reporters during his visit to Indonesia to deliver a message. The ground rule was no question could be raised. Reporter was regarded as a tape recorder of the Chinese leader.

Consequently, fewer and fewer news organisations in Hong Kong sent their crews to cover such overseas visiting trips after taking into account that little news which interested local audiences when reporters were entitled no chance to raise issues before the political heavyweights during the sidelines of their tours, but the cost of such a reporting trip could be hefty.

As a result, Hong Kong people’s access to information, such as that of Xi’s speech in Mexico, becomes limited, when local news organisations tend to stop sending their own news crew but use stories and video clippings provided by Xinhua News Agency and national broadcaster China Central Television, or CCTV, instead.

Order Penetrate to Hong Kong

The restriction seems penetrate into Hong Kong. In 2012, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on June 30, a reporter shouted a question at visiting President Hu Jintao, asking him whether he had heard that Hong Kongers’ calls for vindication of the June 4 Incident. Plain-clothes police officers wasted no time to drag the reporter away from the designated press area before held him in a stairwell until Hu had left the venue.

        Dozens of journalism scholars, legislators and the HKJA condemned Hong Kong police’s intervention into freedom of press in the city afterwards.[3]

Barring of reporter to raise question is a deprivation of press freedom which is not confirm with the requirement of freedom of expression. We call on the Human Rights Committee to urge the Chinese government to immediately call a halt to such unreasonable restrictions on both domestic and foreign journalists.

China’s Pressure Breeds Self-censorship

Journalists in Hong Kong complain that their editorial independence has been increasingly threatened and describe the situation in the past couple of years as the “worst ever” as their companies come under unprecedented political pressure both from mainland China’s representative office in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government.

The HKJA interviewed editors and journalists, on anonymous basis, from five media outlets, both print and electronic, where the problem of self-censorship is particularly serious.

Respondents say the editorial interference takes place through both commercial and direct political pressure. But editorial staff say political interference is by far a much more serious problem and they feel Beijing’s meddling in the past couple of years has been the most heavy-handed, direct and blatant since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Editors are often pressured by the newspaper management to downplay or refrain from reporting negative news on China for fear of offending Beijing and losing advertising from companies keen to show their loyalty to Beijing.

Areas that are “off-limits” for some media outlets include negative news related to the central Chinese government or on the top Chinese leaders, i.e. the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee members. They also include “sensitive” news on political dissidents and activists. Insiders at one paper say sensitive China stories are often cut short, placed in less prominent positions and sometimes even spiked. Reporters and editors often have to brave the wrath of senior staff when pitching human rights stories and some exclusive stories or features were substantially cut in length or delayed in publication until the issues are no long topical. They say when they write or edit, they often have to avoid using words that might offend Beijing, to the extent that it contradicts with their professional judgment.

But Hong Kong media outlets that self-censor still want to maintain a certain degree of credibility and cannot completely avoid big news that has made international headlines. For example, when Bloomberg’s report of new Communist Party leader Xi Jiping’s relatives’ assets or New York Times’ report of Premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives’ wealth broke last year, some media outlets chose to be slow in picking up the news and would observe how other local media outlets play the news before they did their own stories. In cases like this, even when they eventually carry the news, they would tend to choose a less sensitive angle or lead the story with the official reaction and give it less prominence in a bid to lessen the impact.

Direct Calls from China Officials to Newsroom

According to editors and journalists, another trend observed is that the management and senior editors are now more frequently contacted by senior officials at China’s liaison office or the Hong Kong government in their attempt to influence the media outlet’s editorial line. The International Federation of Journalists reported last year that senior management of different media outlets said they had received phone calls or had been invited to meet with Hao Tiechuan, an official in charge of propaganda issues at China’s liaison office, when they had covered sensitive news related to the central government. In a widely reported case last year, the Liaison Office contacted the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s majority shareholder Richard Li’s office to complain about negatives coverage on Beijing and its representative office in Hong Kong during the chief executive election. But the incident was not an isolated one: a senior editor said his publication was given “a black list and white list” on which Hong Kong politicians should be given negative or positive coverage.

Beijing’s attempt to exert influence doesn’t stop at the management level.  Editorial staff interviewed said some front-line journalists had been contacted by mainland figures supposedly from semi-official organisations, who wanted to gain information on their work and offered them benefits in return. Others who had been approached by the authorities when covering news in China had become more reluctant to cover sensitive news, they said.

Media workers also point out that the editorial positions of their companies are heavily influenced by their ownership and editorship. The PRC explicitly incorporated the media boss into their establishment, namely, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the top advisory body Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) since 2003. More than half of the media outlets were appointed to these two organisations[4]. The ratio remains similar in 2013 when the new session of the two organisations is going to be started in March this year. The appointments open the floodgate of influence from China directly or indirectly.

It is worth to note that the chief editor Wang Xiangwei of the English-language South China Morning Post (SCMP), was until last January a member of CPPCC of Jilin province. His appointment in 2012 came not long after then SCMP CEO Kuok Hui-kwong’s one-on-one meeting in Beijing with China’s then Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya.

In June 2012, the SCMP carried a 438-word report of the suspicious death of a Tiananmen activist in its first edition but the story was shrunk to a 101-word news brief in its second edition. When a sub-editor later questioned the chief editor over the decision, he admitted that it was his decision and further noted in an email: “If you don’t like it, you know what to do.” The incident sparked worries over the seriousness of self-censorship at the 110-year-old paper.

The views of the media workers interviewed are largely in line with the findings of an industry-wide survey conducted by the HKJA in April 2012: Almost 80 percent of respondents thought that self-censorship had worsened compared with 2005. The most prevalent forms of self-censorship were downplaying issues unfavourable to conglomerates that wield strong influence over advertising (40.3 percent); downplaying news unfavourable to the central government in Beijing (37 percent) and downplaying issues detrimental to media owners or their interests (34.5 percent). Moreover, 35.9 percent of respondents reported that they or their supervisors had practised self-censorship in the past 12 months. The HKJA believed the real situation might be worse as many interviewees were probably unwilling to admit involvement in self-censorship themselves.

While it is difficult, if not impossible, to stop China from incorporating the media owners into a united front, we urge the United Nations to request the Chinese government officials to refrain from pressurising the media.

[1] See article 35 of the Constitution




[4] P.33 to 34, “Shrinking Margins – Freedom of Expression in Hong Kong Since 1997”, an annual report on freedom of expression produced by HKJA.


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