Closing a Vital Window Into China

How press freedom is eroding in Hong Kong.

Portests Held Following Stabbing Of Former Newspaper Editor
HONG KONG - FEBRUARY 27: Staff members of Ming Pao hold its newspaper printed on February 27, 2014 in which former chief editor of Ming Pao kevin Lau Chun-to was stabbed as front page story during protest outside the Ming Pao office, on February 27, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. The former chief editor of the Ming Pao newspaper, Kevin Lau, has undergone surgery on a lung and his legs after being attacked by an armed assailant, who fled with an accomplice on a motorcycle. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

On Feb. 1, Hong Kong’s democracy advocates returned to the streets, mobilizing thousands of people for a new round of marches and protests to remind their own government and Beijing that their demands for open elections have not been forgotten. While the crowds were far smaller than those that occupied the island city for 11 weeks last fall, the sense of enthusiasm and momentum that grabbed headlines is not dead. “We want to sustain the momentum,” student leader Joshua Wong said at the recent protest.

But while the activists are busy planning their next political moves, Beijing and its proxy, the government of Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, are hardly sitting still. While Beijing seems to realize that a harsh smackdown could backfire, underneath the surface lurk signs that Hong Kong’s cherished liberty may be subtly eroding.

Hong Kong has long been a bastion of press freedom. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the island’s constitution, guarantees freedom “of speech, of the press and of publication.” And the 1984 agreement governing Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from the United Kingdom to China likewise guaranteed that press freedom would be protected. Hong Kong offers a vital portal for coverage of its mammoth neighbor to the north, a vantage point that becomes more important as China’s economy and global influence grow. Correspondents based in Hong Kong have long worried about the dangers of reporting in the region and the challenges of covering China, a sometimes maddeningly opaque nation.

But now, Hong Kong’s press corps are becoming increasingly concerned about the treatment of reporters in the city they have always considered a safe harbor from the wider region’s woes. Encroachments on press freedom in Hong Kong center not on foreign journalists, but on the vibrant and diverse local press corps. Beijing seems increasingly focused on controlling messages directed toward the people of Hong Kong and punishing those who get in the way.

Compared to the detentions, arrests, cruel sentences, and pervasive censorship on the mainland, Beijing’s shadowy interferences with press freedom in Hong Kong look almost subtle. Yet the recent interference — ranging from attacks to threats to secret directives to commercial pressure — risks steadily reshaping Hong Kong’s freewheeling media landscape in Beijing’s image.

A May 2014 report by the local organization the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) reported that Hong Kong’s press corps worries about self-censorship more than any other issue. HKJA recounted incidents of editors delaying stories on the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre and banning coverage of government corruption. The report cited 2014 as the darkest year “for press freedom for several decades, with the media coming under relentless assault.”

Hong Kong has seen a rapid jump in the number of violent attacks on members of the media, including 17 cases of assaults on journalists between June 2012 and June 2014. Prior to that, according to the HKJA, “Hong Kong has been off the radar for such incidents for more than 15 years.” Perhaps the most high profile was the February 2014 stabbing of highly regarded Hong Kong journalist and editor Kevin Lau. The stabbing — which put him out of work for months — was probably in retaliation to a series of hard-hitting exposes about Chinese dissidents and government corruption that he oversaw at the respected Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao.

A second high-profile victim of physical attacks is media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, an open critic of the Beijing government who owns a media company, Next Media, and a top Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily. His publications have long been banned on the mainland, but until recently he enjoyed a mostly free hand in Hong Kong. That ended in 2013, when a man rammed a stolen car through the gate of his home. In November, two men pelted Lai in public with rotten meat. On Jan. 12, 2015, a masked man threw a petrol bomb at Lai’s residence; that same day, masked assailants threw petrol bombs outside of his company’s headquarters.

While Lau and Lai are the highest-profile victims, they aren’t alone. In March 2014, four men carrying metal pipes beat two media executives in a public area outside the Hong Kong Science Museum. Attacks have also targeted photographers, editors, a cameraman, and reporters. The only two known convictions in recent cases of assaults have yielded fines of approximately $125 and no jail time, leading Francis Moriarty, a 25-year veteran of Hong Kong’s foreign press corps, to conclude that “it’s open season on journalists.”

The Occupy Hong Kong movement only seemed to make the environment worse. The Hong Kong Journalists Association documented 24 alleged attacks on journalists during late September and October, the first month of the Occupy protests, including multiple incidents of reporters and camera operators being kicked and punched. In some cases Hong Kong police curtailed reporters’ movements with pepper spray and aggressive physical force.

The attacks were not only violent. Apple Daily experienced a series of sustained cyberattacks as its website provided favorable coverage of Occupy Central. As the protests wore on, throngs of anti-Occupy picketers surrounded Apple Daily’s offices, thwarting delivery of the newspapers. The agitators ignored a court injunction, forcing the company to hire a crane to lift bundles of papers over the protesters’ heads. After police finally cleared the blockade in late October, masked men poured barrels of soy sauce over thousands of papers awaiting distribution.

And infringements on free expression in Hong Kong are occurring not just on the streets, but in boardrooms and newsrooms across the city. The Hong Kong Economics Journal, Ming Pao, and the Commercial Radio station, all media properties known for their independence, have each removed or demoted editors over the past 18 months — moves widely seen as having been nudged by Beijing. The economics journal reportedly received complaint letters from both Hong Kong’s chief executive and Beijing-based officials before appointing a new editor with a reputation for deference to government authority, spiking stories alleging a pro-government bias in the media bias, and warning longtime contributors to stay away from political subjects.

In November 2013, Commercial Radio transferred its outspoken morning show host, Li Wei-ling to a less prominent evening program, reportedly out of concerns that the station’s license might not be renewed. “I feel an unprecedented sense of crisis and pressure engulfing not just Commercial Radio, but the whole media industry in Hong Kong,” Li told the South China Morning Post. In February 2014 she was fired.

Yet another form of pressure on Hong Kong’s media sector is financial. In June 2014 the international banking giants HSBC and Standard Chartered pulled advertising contracts with Lai’s Apple Daily. A spokesman for Lai reported that HSBC told him the bank’s decision followed a directive from the Beijing government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Smaller dailies and websites are also reportedly coming under pressure from advertisers with close ties to the mainland.

Contemplating Beijing’s extraordinary feat in controlling the flow of information and ideas to 1.3 billion people on the mainland, it is hard to hold out much hope of Hong Kong being able to withstand the pressure and maintain its traditions now that Beijing seems to be closing in. But the island’s continued importance as a financial center and gateway for international investment in the mainland mean that leverage — political, economic, and popular — may have much greater influence in Hong Kong than in mainland China. NGOs, governments, international corporations, and multilateral bodies should use their leverage to defend media freedom in Hong Kong and expose its erosion. If they do not, a vital window into China will slam shut, in the process cutting off the flow of air and ideas among Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people.

Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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