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)
Although freedom of expression is protected by law and Hong Kong media remain lively in their criticism of the territory’s government, political and economic pressures, including from Beijing, have narrowed the space for free expression in recent years. Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents enjoy freedoms of speech, press, and publication, and these rights are generally upheld by the territory’s independent courts. However, they risk being undermined by the power of the Chinese National People’s Congress to make final interpretations of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Chinese surveillance in the territory, and the economic interests of media owners involved in the Chinese market.
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. Decisions to grant or refuse licenses are made by the executive branch rather than an independent body. In 2009, authorities continued to obstruct broadcasts by the prodemocracy station Citizens’ Radio, whose license application had been rejected in 2006. In November, six activists were convicted and fined between HK$3,000 (US$380) and HK$12,000 (US$1,500) each on charges of broadcasting without a license, though the judge in the case acknowledged their act of civil disobedience as “noble.” In January 2008, the same magistrate had found the existing licensing system unconstitutional, but a higher court subsequently ruled that the ordinance’s unconstitutionality could not be used as a defense. In a similar case in December 2009, eight activists and prodemocracy lawmakers were each fined between HK$1,000 (US$125) and HK$4,000 (US$500) on charges of “transmitting a message using an unlicensed means of communication” for participating in an April 2008 Citizens’ Radio broadcast.
Increasing media self-censorship poses a serious threat to free expression in the territory. In recent years, Beijing’s influence over the news, publishing, and film industries has increased, prompting greater restraint on issues deemed sensitive by the central government. The Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program reported in September 2009 that over half of citizens interviewed believed the media practiced self-censorship, a record high since the survey series began. In one incident during 2009, top managers of the Hong Kong edition of Esquire magazine barred the publication of a 16-page feature about the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; Daisy Chu, the feature’s author, was subsequently fired on June 29, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA). More broadly, the HKJA reported that “only two or three newspapers devoted significant coverage to the anniversary, while leading TV stations aired just a few special programs, with some appearing to follow [the Communist Party’s] line.”
Such self-censorship stems in part from the close relationship between media owners and the central government. At least 10 owners sit on 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 ruling Communist Party to co-opt powerful members of society. Several media owners are also current or former members of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament. In a further effort to influence the territory’s media landscape, the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, launched a branch in Hong Kong in November.
Hong Kong journalists face restrictions and intimidation when covering events on the mainland, limiting their ability to provide national news to the local population. In contrast to loosened regulations for foreign journalists in China, which were extended indefinitely after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, mainland authorities issued more restrictive conditions for Hong Kong media workers in February 2009. The regulations require journalists to obtain temporary press cards from Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong prior to each reporting visit to the mainland, and to obtain the prior consent of interviewees. Several journalists reported that they were generally able to obtain the desired press card on the day of application, but expressed fears that they could run into obstructions by mainland authorities should they attempt to cover a breaking story that is not cited in their documents. Journalists from the territory have repeatedly been subject to surveillance, threats, beatings, and occasional jailing when reporting on the mainland. In September, three journalists—a television reporter and two cameramen—were allegedly tied up, handcuffed, and beaten by police in Xinjiang while covering a series of reported stabbings with hypodermic needles. The incident sparked rare criticism from across the political spectrum, including from Hong Kong representatives to the National People’s Congress. The announcement several days later that an official Chinese investigation had found the journalists to be at fault for “instigating protests” sparked further outrage in Hong Kong, culminating in a petition signed by 1,300 journalists and a demonstration that drew over 700.
Physical violence against journalists by Hong Kong authorities is rare. Nevertheless, several journalists were assaulted by nonstate actors during the year. In January 2009, a British photographer was punched by the wife of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe while trying to report on her visit to Hong Kong. The following month, two other journalists were manhandled by bodyguards of Mugabe’s daughter while seeking to report on the family’s recent purchase of a luxury home. In a decision that was criticized by press freedom groups, the Hong Kong government decided not to prosecute, citing diplomatic immunity for the wife of Mugabe, a close Beijing ally. International media organizations operate freely in Hong Kong, and foreign correspondents do not need government-issued identification.
Despite the increasing self-censorship, Hong Kong’s media remain outspoken, there is a high degree of professionalism, 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 criticism of 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 supporting these publications would damage their economic interests on the mainland.
Controversy continued in 2009 over the future of the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which has functioned as an editorially independent outlet and earned high public-approval ratings for its critical coverage of the government. After several years of delay, in September 2009 the government rejected proposals to turn RTHK into an independent public broadcaster or create a separate such outlet, while also announcing the creation of a government-appointed board to advise RTHK’s director of broadcasting. The announcement raised concerns that the new arrangement could curtail the station’s editorial independence. A period for public consultation on the issue was opened in October and had not concluded by year’s end. There are no restrictions on internet access. Approximately 61 percent of the population uses the medium, giving Hong Kong one of the highest internet usage rates in Asia.