Hong Kong * | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Hong Kong *

Freedom of the Press 2016
Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Political Environment: 
17 / 40 (↑1)
(0=BEST, 40=WORST)
Economic Environment: 
9 / 30 (↑1)
(0=BEST, 30=WORST)
Press Freedom Score: 
39 / 100 (↑2)
(0=BEST, 100=WORST)

Quick Facts

Population: 
7,286,402
Freedom in the World Status: 
Partly Free
Internet Penetration Rate: 
85.0%

Overview

Hong Kong media remained lively in their criticism of the local government and to a lesser extent the Chinese central government in 2015. Tensions eased somewhat in the aftermath of the 2014 prodemocracy protests and related crackdowns, which had featured a number of physical assaults and cyberattacks on the press. However, the freedoms that residents enjoy in the semiautonomous territory—a special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China—continued to be undermined by mainland and local authorities who emphasize Beijing’s ultimate sovereignty.

 

Key Developments

  • Five Hong Kong residents associated with a local publisher known for producing books that are critical of China’s leaders disappeared in late 2015 and were thought to be in the custody of mainland authorities, raising fears that Beijing had disregarded the territory’s laws and autonomy.
  • The December acquisition of Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper by Alibaba, a mainland Chinese company with strong ties to the central government, deepened concerns about Beijing’s growing influence over local news media.

 

Legal Environment: 13 / 30

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 National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, to make final interpretations of the Basic Law, as well as by Chinese surveillance in the territory and the mainland economic interests of local media owners. Moreover, the perpetrators and especially the organizers of attacks on journalists in recent years have often gone unpunished, creating a climate of impunity.

Hong Kong’s Defamation Ordinance establishes both fines and prison time for violations, though the latter punishment is rarely used. In November 2015, the Hong Kong Court of Appeal overturned a 2013 verdict that found Ming Pao, a local Chinese-language newspaper, guilty of defaming Pui Kwan-kay, the vice chairman of the Hong Kong Football Association, in an editorial.

In October 2015, the University of Hong Kong obtained an interim injunction to prevent radio broadcaster Commercial Radio from disseminating recordings it had obtained of a confidential September meeting of the university’s governing council, at which the council had rejected the appointment of a prodemocracy professor to a high-level administrative post. Rather than challenging the injunction, Commercial Radio reached an agreement with the university to abide by it; however, in late November the judge agreed to hear a challenge to the order by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), extending the injunction until after the trial. Meanwhile, additional recordings of council sessions were leaked to the public, partly through other media outlets.

Hong Kong has no freedom of information (FOI) law. An administrative code—the Code of Access to Information—is intended to ensure open access to government records, but official adherence is inconsistent, prompting local journalists and watchdog groups to urge the government to give freedom of information requirements the force of law. The government has stated that it is deferring a decision on FOI legislation until after a Law Reform Commission subcommittee report on the subject, originally expected before 2016. However, the subcommittee had yet to announce the completion of its study or release its report by the end of 2015.

 As part of the broader effort to ensure freedom of information, press advocates have called for an archive law to preserve government documents. As with the FOI law proposal, the executive branch has cited an ongoing Law Reform Commission subcommittee study, initiated in June 2013, as its reason for not considering archive legislation. Such studies often take several years to complete and produce recommendations that the government is not obligated to follow. No progress on the subcommittee’s report was announced by the end of 2015.

A Hong Kong Companies Ordinance that took effect in 2014 included controversial provisions restricting the disclosure of company directors’ residential addresses and identification numbers, which would pose serious obstacles to investigative reporting. However, these restrictions were not put into operation and remained unimplemented at the end of 2015. Press freedom advocates continue to question the selective application of the Broadcasting Ordinance and the constitutionality of existing procedures for granting licenses to new media outlets. Although a nominally independent Communications Authority provides recommendations, the executive branch makes final decisions on licenses. In 2013, the government granted two new free-to-air television licenses, ending a long-standing duopoly, but it rejected a third application on the grounds that the market might not be able to sustain another outlet. The poorly justified decision raised suspicions of a political motive. In April 2015, the rejected applicant, Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), obtained a court ruling that required the government to reconsider the station’s application. An appeal was pending at year’s end.

 

Political Environment: 17 / 40 (↑1)

Hong Kong’s media remain relatively outspoken, featuring a high degree of professionalism and vigorous political debate. However, media self-censorship poses a serious threat to free expression in the territory. According to an HKJA survey conducted in January 2015, local journalists believe that self-censorship is common. The respondents gave an average rating of 7.0 on a 0–10 scale, with 0 representing no self-censorship and 10 indicating that it is very common. The problem stems in part from the close relationship between local media owners and the central government in Beijing. Several owners sit on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body that has little real influence over government policy but is used by the Chinese Communist Party to co-opt powerful members of society. A number of Hong Kong media owners are also current or former members of the NPC, and many have significant business interests in mainland China.

In January 2014, the parent company of Ming Pao reassigned chief editor Kevin Lau to its electronic books and teaching materials division, allegedly due to the paper’s aggressive investigations into local officials and politically connected mainlanders during his tenure. He was replaced by an interim editor until January 2015, when Chong Tien-siong, a pro-Beijing Malaysian national, officially assumed the position of chief editor. In February, Chong sparked controversy by bumping from Ming Pao’s front page a story about newly released diplomatic cables from the Canadian embassy in Beijing during the 1989 prodemocracy demonstrations and the subsequent violent crackdown. The article was moved to the inside pages and replaced with a story about Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s new HK$1 billion (US$130 million) fund for young Hong Kong entrepreneurs. Approximately 100 Ming Pao employees staged a one-hour work stoppage, dropping their pens outside the entrance of the paper’s headquarters and holding up signs to protest their chief editor’s action.

In March 2015, Hong Kong’s largest free-to-air television station, TVB, hired Luk Hon-tak, the former director general of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), a pro-Beijing political party, as a managing editor responsible for political content. Observers and many TVB employees saw the move as emblematic of the station’s deepening pro-Beijing bias. Several veteran journalists left TVB in the early months of 2015 amid declining staff morale.

In May, the South China Morning Post notified four of its longtime opinion columnists that they would be relieved of their regular columns the following month, though they could continue to submit articles for consideration on a case-by-case basis. The decision drew criticism due to the paper’s history under then owner Robert Kuok, a wealthy pro-Beijing businessman, of demoting or firing staff who produced work that was critical of the Chinese leadership.

Reporters covering rallies or sensitive breaking news stories sometimes face assaults, though such incidents were less common in 2015 given the end of the previous year’s contentious Occupy Central protests. Hong Kong journalists also face restrictions and intimidation when covering events on the mainland, limiting their ability to provide national news to the local population. Chinese authorities require journalists to obtain temporary press cards from the Liaison Office in Hong Kong prior to each reporting visit to the mainland, and to obtain the prior consent of interviewees. Even with accreditation, journalists from the territory have repeatedly been subjected to surveillance, threats, beatings, and occasional jailing when reporting on the mainland.

Targeted, retaliatory violence against media workers, although relatively rare in Hong Kong, has occurred more frequently in recent years. In August 2015, two men were sentenced to 19 years in prison for carrying out a February 2014 attack on Kevin Lau, the former Ming Pao editor, who sustained grievous injuries. However, the unidentified organizer of the attack remained at large at year’s end, and the motive remained unclear.

The Hong Kong–based media company Next Media and its founder, Jimmy Lai, have been subject to brazen acts of intimidation over the years for their support of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement. In January 2015, masked assailants lobbed Molotov cocktails at Lai’s home and Next Media’s headquarters. At year’s end, no one had been arrested in connection with the attacks. Next Media’s computer systems, particularly the website of its tabloid newspaper, Apple Daily, suffered crippling cyberattacks during 2014. However, no major cyberattacks on media outlets were reported in 2015.

Five Hong Kong residents associated with local publisher Mighty Current Media, which specializes in thinly sourced books about the private lives of top Chinese government officials, disappeared in late 2015 and were believed to be in custody on the mainland at year’s end. One of the co-owners of the publishing company, Gui Minhai, went missing in October in Pattaya, Thailand. Although Gui had reportedly contacted his wife, daughter, and building manager since his disappearance, his exact whereabouts were unknown. The company’s general manager, Lu Bo, and two employees, Zhang Zhiping and Lin Rongji, also went missing in October while across the border in southern China. Finally, Mighty Current editor Lee Bo was last seen on December 30 at his company’s warehouse in Hong Kong. The widespread suspicion that Beijing was responsible for the disappearance of the five men led many to question whether Chinese authorities still respected Hong Kong’s autonomy or laws. The cases of Gui Minhai and Lee Bo—who held Swedish and British citizenship, respectively—raised fears that journalists and authors who anger Beijing may not be safe in Hong Kong or even in foreign countries.

 

Economic Environment: 9 / 30 (↑1)

Dozens of daily newspapers are published in Chinese and English. Hong Kong’s residents have access to satellite television and international radio broadcasts from services including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). There are no official restrictions on internet access in Hong Kong, and the territory has one of the highest usage rates in Asia, with about 85 percent of the population accessing the medium as of 2015.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) operates as an independent department in the government and earns high public-approval ratings for its critical coverage of the authorities. However, since the government issued a new charter in 2011 that vowed to promote China’s official “one country, two systems” policy toward Hong Kong, there have been concerns over mounting political pressure on RTHK’s editorial independence.

While the overall media market in Hong Kong is strong—the city enjoys the world’s highest per capita advertising expenditure rate—many local news organizations struggle to stay afloat. Some outlets known for their criticism of the Chinese central government have reported difficulties in attracting advertisers in recent years due to fears among private business owners that an association with independent media would damage their economic interests on the mainland.

Amid a steady stream of closures, two new independent news outlets were established in Hong Kong in 2015 using crowdfunding. Hong Kong Free Press, a nonprofit English-language news source, went online in June, and the investigative news agency FactWire, headed by veteran journalist Ng Hiu-tung, was launched in August. A third online news organization, the Chinese-language Initium Media, also began operating in August, aiming to provide independent and professional news coverage to the global Chinese diaspora.

In December 2015, mainland e-commerce giant Alibaba acquired SCMP Group, owner of the South China Morning Post. Although the paper had faced numerous accusations of self-censorship and pro-Beijing bias under the ownership of Robert Kuok, its purchase by Alibaba, a company with strong ties to the Chinese central government, stoked fears that whatever degree of editorial independence the paper still had would soon dwindle further.