As China’s control grows, Hong Kong media freedoms recede
They got him as he stepped out of his car one morning in February. Wielding a meat-cleaver, Lau Chun-to’s assailant hacked at his back and legs, then sped away on a motorbike with an accomplice.
The attack on Lau, the former chief editor of the respected local Hong Kong paper Ming Pao, comes on the heels of a steady increase in assaults on the press. Last June, Next Media – the largest media group in Hong Kong – came under a string of attacks. A car crashed into the front gates of its chairman’s residence. A machete and an axe were left in the driveway. Shortly after, a journalist for a tabloid owned by Next Media was beaten up. Just over a week later, three men set fire to 26,000 copies of Apple Daily – a populist newspaper known for its critical reporting on China.
These attacks have led many to ask: are Hong Kong’s press freedoms under siege?
The attacks, though undoubtedly grave and serious, are only a piece of a larger picture. These violent attacks have caused concern about the changing political and commercial environment surrounding Hong Kong’s media.
“I don’t think the attacks are the best indicator of Hong Kong’s media freedom,” said Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The attacks are bad, and I don’t want to undercut them. But the bigger issue is the way Hong Kong media ownership is deciding to cooperate with the Chinese government at the expense of media independence.”
While threats to press freedom are a global concern – forced resignations of journalists in Turkey, abductions in Syria, killings in Egypt, detentions in China, crackdowns in Russia – in Hong Kong, the battle takes a different form: political and commercial pressures.
Politically, more than half of the media owners in Hong Kong have been appointed to national political bodies in China – the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, according to a 2007 report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
The cozy ties between Hong Kong and China mean that often editorial decisions can be clouded by political and business concerns. "In Hong Kong, media organizations are mostly owned by tycoons with business interests in China,” Claudia Mo, a Hong Kong legislator, told the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They don't want to lose advertising revenue from Chinese companies and they don't want to anger the central government.”
The problem of evaporating profits in Hong Kong’s media industry, too, complicates editorial decisions and business relations. Like newspapers in many countries worldwide, the print industry’s market share and revenues have steadily dwindled.
“Twenty years ago, Ming Pao made HK$200 million annually. Now we’re at 1 percent of that – about two to three million,” said Ernest Chi, deputy editor-in-chief of Ming Pao. “The South China Morning Post used to make HK$1 billion annually. Oriental Daily used to make HK$1 billion annually. They make nothing close to that now.”
Chi is a veteran in the Hong Kong press. Starting as a financial journalist in 1994, he has seen the development of Hong Kong’s media landscape over the years, both before and after the end of British rule in Hong Kong in 1997. And the outlook, he admits, is not rosy.
With the rise of the Internet, the popularity of smartphone apps, free metro dailies and 24-hour news channels, newspapers are being squeezed commercially as never before, Chi explained.
“Newspapers are making less money, and they are afraid of adverts being pulled. When you have a thin bottom line, one advertising client can have a significant influence,” he said. “Would you run an exclusive, explosive exposé and piss off a big client?”
Chi now heads up the investigative reporting team at Ming Pao, and in recent years he has led a series of investigations that exposed scandals involving top politicians.
Yet with an ever-thinning bottom line, the harsh realities of commercial pressures have begun to chip away at editorial independence, Chi explained. “Increasingly, investments are made in newspapers with an eye on political influence. Profits are now insignificant, so they want something else in return – a political return on investment.”
Commenting on the investors, Chi added, “The media is only a small part of their empire, but they use it as a leverage, to haggle and to bargain. Investors ask themselves, 'What do I want this thing for? Give me political influence.'”
Business concerns aside, Chi also noted that Beijing’s increasing influence over Hong Kong is an undeniable fact.
“It’s not that Britain was more civilized,” Chi was careful to note. “But they do have a history of democracy,” and Hong Kong inherited democratic values from its colonial days: freedom of speech, the separation of powers, the sanctity of the law. Things have since changed.
“Hong Kong returned to her fatherland, China, in 1997 – and I think you can objectively say that China is still, to a certain extent, totalitarian,” Chi said.
At the same time, the irony is that Hong Kong never was a democracy. As a British colony, Hong Kong had a tremendous number of flaws, said Dietz. “It’s trying to return to something that never really existed.”
Perhaps that is why the battle for press freedom will be such a difficult one. “Press freedom is very conceptual,” Chi said. “It’s not very concrete. It’s vague. We can slowly lose it, and not even know.”
What is obvious, however, is that Hong Kong is being absorbed into China politically, economically and socially, Dietz said. “And what is most worrying is the city’s inability to maintain independent voices critical of the local and Chinese government.”
The attack on Lau, who survived the attack and is on a long road to recovery, has galvanized the Hong Kong public. Lau had been removed from his position as editor-in-chief in January, raising suspicions that his replacement was another attempt by China to stifle Hong Kong’s independent media. Just days before the attack, some 6,000 protesters took to the streets to demand that Hong Kong’s leader do more to safeguard media freedoms.
Some suspect that the attack was meant to silence Lau. Ming Pao had recently collaborated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which in January published an exposé on the offshore tax holdings of various Chinese leaders. Earlier, Ming Pao had also investigated the suspicious death of the Chinese dissident Li Wangyang. Many suspected a murder, but Chinese authorities ruled it a suicide.
In a statement issued on March 12, Lau said he was “positive that the assault is related to my job in the newspaper.”
Days after the attack, thousands of demonstrators were out in force again, marching to condemn the recent violence and to make an impassioned call for press freedom. “They Can’t Kill Us All,” read a giant banner carried by the demonstrators. Lawmakers have also voted unanimously to condemn the attack on Lau. The police have made a series of arrests connected with the attack, and two men have been charged – though the alleged mastermind remains at large.
Whether it is political or commercial pressures, a mix of both, or just outright violence, Chi and Dietz agree that the road ahead for Hong Kong's media will be fraught with struggles. Both are hoping the public will demand a free and open press. But whether that resolve will be enough to reverse or slow the trend of diminishing press freedoms is an open question.
“There’s an uphill battle, frankly,” Dietz said.
Mary Hui is from Hong Kong and a freshman at Princeton University. She is an aspiring foreign correspondent and previously interned at the Hong Kong office of the International New York Times and Time Out Hong Kong. Reach her at @maryhui.
Related: Reporting on 'Offshore Leaks China' took six months and news partners from around the world | Covering China: for foreign and domestic press, self-censorship's the threat | Another Bloomberg News journalist resigns over company's handling of China story