Hong Kong's Press Freedom Index Falls For Second Year Running

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Members of an anti-censorship group protests a request by government officials at Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department to remove the word 'national' from the name of a Taiwanese university in Hong Kong, March 2016.
Members of an anti-censorship group protests a request by government officials at Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department to remove the word 'national' from the name of a Taiwanese university in Hong Kong, March 2016.

Press freedom in Hong Kong has declined for a second year running, according to an annual survey carried out by journalists in the city.

The Hong Kong Press Freedom Index for journalists, which measures how professionals feel about journalism in the former British colony, fell by 0.7 points, while measurements of public perceptions of press freedom fell by 1.4 points, the survey said.

"Both the public and journalists believe that press freedom has deteriorated in 2015," the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), which conducted the survey, said in a statement on its website.

Fifty-four percent of Hong Kong residents believed that press freedom worsened in 2015, while just 34 percent believed there had been no change, the survey showed.

"The situation is getting daily worse for press freedom, and Hong Kong laws aren't enough to protect it," HKJA chief Sham Yee-lan told reporters. "The Hong Kong government should legislate to protect press freedom as soon as possible to reverse the situation."

Of the semi-autonomous city's journalists, 85 percent said they believe that press freedom worsened last year, with just 1 percent believing that it had improved.

Self-censorship is common

Self-censorship was also highlighted as a major area of concern, with the majority of journalists rating it as very common, particular in relation to stories criticizing the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

"This fear will definitely affect our daily work in terms of how vocal we should be in terms of writing our commentary, as well as in reporting mainland-related stories," HKJA vice chairwoman Shirley Yam said.

"The fear of being arrested, for example, or what [might] happen when we travel in mainland [China], or even in Hong Kong, that is the overwhelming fear," Yam said in comments recorded by government broadcaster RTHK.

She cited the detentions of five managers and staff of Causeway Bay Books, who are all "helping police with inquiries" across the internal immigration border in China after disappearing from locations in Hong Kong and Thailand late last year.

"Everyone who ... witnessed what happened to Lee Bo and Causeway Bay bookstore would have a concern about censorship, which is a genuine fear not just for members of the press, but any commentator or even the man on the street making comments", she said.

Sham said she fears that "press freedom, which is a pillar of Hong Kong’s success, has been eroded at its roots, even worse, the fundamentals of the rights the general public is enjoying are also at stake."

Journalists wait outside the building entrance to the Causeway Bay Books store which sells books on Chinese politics in Hong Kong, Feb. 1, 2016. Credit: AFP AFP
Damage is obvious

The more significant drop in rating by the general public implies that the damage caused to press freedom is so obvious that even the general public is aware of the problem, Sham said in a statement as the report was published.

The public opinion element of the report is based on polling data gathered from a total of 1,021 Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong residents aged 18 and above, who were interviewed by the Public Opinion Programme of the University of Hong Kong between Jan. 14 and 19, 2016.

Responses to 446 questionnaires sent to journalists between Jan. 6 and Feb. 16 were used to compile the professional measure of confidence in press freedom.

Hong Kong Shue Yan University's journalism course leader Leung Tin-wai said the key factor affecting the city's media is the lack of press freedom across the border.

"An important factor is that Beijing is curbing press freedom inside China, and there are reports that officials are coming here to curb our activities too," Leung said. "Those things make me fear for Hong Kong's freedoms."

To Yiu-ming, professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the public perception that press freedom is waning is linked to recent events, including the takeover of the city's flagship English-language newspaper by a mainland Chinese Internet giant.

"For example, Alibaba's purchase of the South China Morning Post, the refusal to grant a broadcasting license to the free Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV)," To said.

"[There are also cases of] the government being less cooperative when it comes to providing information, even to the point of holding fewer press conferences," he said.

HKTV was denied a free-to-air television license after a three-year wait, sparking protests and allegations of official revenge for its criticism of the city's chief executive Leung Chun-ying.

Broader concerns

The press freedom report comes amid broader concerns over censorship sparked by a request to delete the word "national" from the name of a Taiwanese university made by government officials at Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Officials reportedly told Hong Kong theater company The Nonsensemakers to delete the word from the profile of producer Law Shuk-yin who graduated from the Taipei National University of the Arts.

The move is a reflection of Beijing's view that the island is a renegade province awaiting reunification.

King-wa Fu, associate professor at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC), said the move was unacceptable.

"Do they think that to graduate from this university means that you support the idea that Taiwan is an independent country?" Fu said. "This is unacceptable ... They should respect the names as they are given."

"Who made this decision? Did this come from the central government in Beijing or the Hong Kong government, or the department itself? This needs to be made clear," he said.

Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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