Press freedom in Hong Kong is at a new low in the eyes of its residents and journalists, with the growing influence of the ruling Chinese Communist Party cited as the main factor in the decline, a new survey has found.
The survey, commissioned by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) and conducted by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme, found that one in five journalists had come under pressure not to write so much about people wanting independence for the city.
Eighty-one percent of journalists who responded to the survey said press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened since last year, while 25 percent described it as "much worse" since last year.
"Self-censorship and pressure from the Central Government are listed as the top factors in their assessment of press freedom," the HKJA said in a report on its website.
"What is worrying is that 112 journalists, or 22 percent of the 516 respondents, said their seniors had exerted pressure on them to drop or reduce reporting on Hong Kong independence," the report said.
Nearly 70 percent of respondents said that China's ever-expanding influence over Hong Kong’s affairs had made them uncomfortable in reporting dissenting voices, an increase of six percent compared with a survey from last year.
Meanwhile, public perceptions of press freedom in the formerly freewheeling city have fallen to their lowest level since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, according to a public opinion portion of the survey.
Chief among public concerns was "pressure exerted by the central government" in a number of incidents, including the denial of a work visa to Financial Times Asia Editor Victor Mallet, after he hosted an event at the Foreign Correspondents' Club where a pro-independence politician was the speaker.
"Some have used the fable about slowly cooking a frog to describe the environment of press freedom in Hong Kong. Now, the water is no longer simmering but boiling," said an HKJA spokesperson.
HKJA chairman Chris Yeung said the report sounds a warning bell over press freedom in Hong Kong, and that political pressure should never result in less reporting on any topic.
Citing public concerns over the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) after its founder Andy Chan gave his address at the FCC event, Yeung said the Hong Kong government had a responsibility to defend the city's traditional freedoms, as stipulated by China’s 1984 handover treaty with the United Kingdom and Hong Kong's Basic Law.
But Yeung said attempts to raise such concerns with Hong Kong officials had fallen on deaf ears.
"We had the opportunity to reflect some of these problems to officials, but after talking to them, we found that the government really didn't grasp the nature of the problem," he said.
"This will make the media feel powerless," said Yeung, adding, "I think the public will also be feeling a bit powerless, and be worrying about the future of the freedom of speech and press freedom [in Hong Kong.]”
Journalists and public participants in the survey also cited a fall in confidence in the media's capacity to act as a watchdog, the adequacy of legal safeguards for access to information and the overall diversity of viewpoints expressed in media reporting.
"The Central Government was listed for the first time by the public as the top most important factor in their assessment of press freedom in
Hong Kong," the HKJA said.
About 70 percent of respondents regarded the decision to bar Victor Mallet from entering Hong Kong damaging to the city’s press freedom.
Other events seen as threatening to freedom of expression included the retraction by major Hong Kong media outlets of remarks made by China's propaganda chief, Huang Kunming.
In a live video, Huang told a delegation of Hong Kong media bosses that "Hong Kong media should not become a political base for interfering with the rest of China.”
Huang's comments were relayed to the media by the boss of Singtao media group, Siu Sai-wo, who headed the delegation, but some media outlets, which were represented in the delegation, later changed their original reports, deleting Siu’s comment, the HKJA said at the time.
Last November, two venues in Hong Kong pulled out of hosting a literary event by dissident Chinese author Ma Jian, an incident that was also raised by respondents to the survey.
The Tai Kwun Arts and Heritage Centre canceled Ma's event, in which he was to discuss his latest book, “China Dream,” a biting satire of President Xi Jinping's concept of a resurgent China. It later reinstated the event after a public outcry.
Physical attacks by Chinese public servants on members of Hong Kong’s media in Beijing and Sichuan province were also cited as having a deleterious effect on press freedom, the HKJA report found.
The public opinion survey ran from Jan. 21-24 and interviewed a total of 1,033 Cantonese speaking Hong Kong residents aged 18 or older.
The HKJA based its findings on questionnaires sent to journalists between Jan. 5 and Feb. 28, receiving 535 responses.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.