Freedom of the Press
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Hong Kong *
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: Hong Kong’s status declined from Free to Partly Free in 2008, as Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong media, which has been growing in recent years, became more formalized and publicly evident. Of particular concern were the appointment of 10 Hong Kong media owners to a mainland Chinese political advisory body and reports that critics of Beijing had more difficulty gaining access to Hong Kong media platforms.
Press freedom advocates continue to express concerns over the selective application of the Broadcasting Ordinance and the constitutionality of existing procedures for granting licenses to new media outlets, particularly in relation to the prodemocracy pirate radio station Citizens’ Radio. The station’s license application was rejected in 2006, and the authorities have since obstructed its broadcasts. In January 2008, a magistrate found that the licensing system was unconstitutional because decisions to grant or refuse licenses are taken by the executive branch rather than an independent body. Parts of the ruling were subsequently overturned by a higher court, but the constitutionality question remained unresolved at year’s end. The authorities raided Citizens’ Radio and confiscated equipment in December, and several activists faced criminal charges at year’s end for attempting to broadcast earlier in the year. If convicted, they could reportedly face fines of up to US$12,800 and prison terms of up to five years. Adding to concerns about the selective application of media regulations, the authorities took a milder approach to outlets that were perceived as more sympathetic to the government. In January, legislator Albert Cheng encountered no regulatory interference after announcing the launch of a new AM radio station that would include programming under the theme “harmonious society,” a common term in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rhetoric that was often used to justify the suppression of political dissent.
There were no outright attacks on the press in 2008. However, signs of Beijing’s growing influence on the media environment emerged during the year, particularly in the period surrounding the passage of the Olympic torch relay through the territory and during the games themselves in August. For example, there was a nearly total freeze on the release of new Chinese-language films during the summer. According to the chief executive of one motion picture company, this was related to the fact that “the authorities up north did suggest it would be better not to schedule releases during the Games.”
Increasing media self-censorship poses a serious threat to free expression in the territory. The most common types of self-censorship in 2008 were reportedly the downplaying of information that would be detrimental to media owners or their interests, and constraints on investigations of issues deemed sensitive by the CCP, such as negative news about the central government, the repression of ethnic and religious minorities, the work of some human rights defenders in China, and efforts to seek redress for victims of Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators. In a case that drew widespread attention in April, the editorial board of the journal of the Hong Kong Law Society made a last-minute decision not to publish an article by a prominent human rights lawyer that outlined the basis for Tibetans’ right to self-determination under international law. The article, which had previously been approved by the board, would have run in the journal’s May edition, coinciding with the Hong Kong leg of the Olympic torch relay. The incident was part of a broader trend that has been documented in recent years. The Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program reported that 45.8 percent of journalists polled in 2008 believed that press freedom had deteriorated since 1997, mainly due to self-censorship. In the context of the Olympics, observers raised concerns that a general atmosphere of growing nationalism could further marginalize dissenting voices.
International media organizations operate freely in Hong Kong, and foreign correspondents do not need government-issued identification. However, they face restrictions on traveling freely from the territory into China, contributing to a trend of international media outlets moving their bureaus to Beijing or Shanghai. Similarly, in July, a journalist for Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, known for its critical stance toward the central and Hong Kong governments, was prevented by the mainland authorities from entering the country.
Self-censorship is reinforced by the close relationship between an increasing number of Hong Kong media owners and the government in Beijing. These ties grew more formal in early 2008, when 10 owners—nearly half of the media owners in the territory, according to the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association—were named to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body that has little real influence over government policy but is often used by the CCP to co-opt powerful members of society. Among those named to the body were owners or major shareholders of some of the most prominent media groups in Hong Kong, including the Sing Tao Group, Oriental Press Group, and ATV. Several media owners are also current or former members of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
Despite the increasing self-censorship, Hong Kong’s media remain outspoken, there is a high degree of professionalism among journalists, and political debate is vigorous in the diverse and partisan press. Hong Kong has dozens of daily newspapers in both Chinese and English, and residents have access to satellite television and international radio broadcasts from services like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In recent years, however, publications known for their critical stance vis-a-vis the central government, such as the Apple Daily and the Epoch Times, have reported difficulties in attracting advertisers because of fears among private business owners that advertising in these publications would damage their economic interests on the mainland. Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai estimated in 2007 that as a result of a coordinated advertising boycott by property developers, his paper lost HK$200 million (US$25 million) in revenue annually. The future of the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which has functioned as an editorially independent outlet, remained unclear in 2008. A 2007 review panel had recommended that a new public broadcaster be established but did not comment on the fate of RTHK; this was widely interpreted as a threat to media freedom and the continued existence of RTHK. In January 2008, the government announced that a promised consultation exercise on the broadcaster’s future had been put on hold indefinitely. There are no restrictions on internet access. Some 70 percent of the population uses the medium, giving Hong Kong the highest internet usage rate in Asia.