Hacked off in Hong Kong: the slow painful death of a free press

14 Feb

hackDo you hear that? That’s the sound of 1,000 Old Etonians shouting “I told you so!!” at the top of their over-privileged lungs. Why? Because of what’s happening to Hong Kong’s much cherished press freedom.

This week two reports were published and the verdict was in – this former colony can no longer be said to have a free press. There were always suspicions and concerns that Beijing would come to influence the media here post-97, but it only influences in the way that George Best drove under the ‘influence’ of alcohol – let’s be honest, it’s pretty much rolled up the white flag.

The first report, Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, now puts Hong Kong in 61st out of 180, three points down from last year, below those democratic bulwarks of Burkina Faso, Moldova and Chile. To put this in perspective Hong Kong was 34th in 2010 and 18th in 2002. So what went wrong?

It’s certainly not the fault of the hacks. Well, not most of them. Many still maintain the proud tradition of holding the authorities to account and speaking the truth – which was to be fair  a hangover of the colonial days – or at least they try. Local radio host Li Wei-Ling, who has been described as “critical” of the local SAR government, was sacked this week after nine years in her role in what she claims was a deliberate attempt to muzzle her.

No, the problem lies with vested interests. Reporters Without Borders had this to say:

The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its “Liaison Office” is increasingly compromising media pluralism there.

The problem is that Hong Kong media is owned now almost entirely by businessmen with vested interests in China. In fact, more than 50 per cent have been given seats on major political assemblies, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Add this to the fact no-one wants to piss off the big bucks advertisers from the mainland and you’ve got a recipe for a fourth estate not fit for purpose.

It’s not that the media is always Beijing’s lapdog – the SCMP today reported, for example, that the Town Planning Board is about to give the Chinese PLA a piece of prime harbour front land on which to build a “military berth”. However, the issue is that as readers we don’t know how much self-censorship goes on. This is the most insidious form of censorship, not like the blatant stuff that goes on the mainland, where this week the Ministry of Truth issued an order for all websites to censor the Reporters Without Borders story. This Register headline neatly sums up the irony: the censors effectively censoring a report about censorship.

Another scathing report out this week, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, quotes award-winning former SCMP hack Paul Mooney on the issue of self-censorship.

“The problem is that people on the outside can’t tell what’s being censored on the inside. What outsiders can’t see is what is being ignored, spiked or rewritten in order to play down critical stories,” he said.

The CPJ continues:

Mooney built his career on investigative and human rights reporting but during the last nine months of his employment, he had only two news stories in the newspaper, and one of them was about pandas. “I don’t believe the China editors rejected all my story ideas. I think [Wang] Xiangwei told them not to take anything from me,” he said. 

Wang Xiangwei, for the record, was the SCMP’s new editor at the time, the first mainlander to be put in charge of the venerable old rag in its history, in itself an ominous statement of intent.

Hong Kong’s press freedom is enshrined under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution drawn up as part of the UK handover deal. However, it very soon won’t be worth the paper it’s written on, and thousands more former colonisers will have the self-satisfaction to know that it was they, not the current shambles, who were in charge during Hong Kong’s true glory days.

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2 Responses to “Hacked off in Hong Kong: the slow painful death of a free press”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. George and the locusts, coming soon to a former colony near YOU | Death Noodle - February 20, 2014

    […] of why Hong Kongers seem so quick to mobilise in protest. Last week all the fuss was about the not-so-subtle erosion of the SAR’s enshrined press freedoms while this week the news cycle has been dominated by a […]

  2. Hong Kong’s press freedom knifed in the back | Death Noodle - February 27, 2014

    […] rapidly diminishing press freedom? Well, it’ll certainly be a few more positions down on RWB’s Press Freedom Index this time next year, that’s for […]

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