Tag Archives: reporters without borders

Hong Kong’s press freedom knifed in the back

27 Feb

It’s a rather sombre Noodle entry this week after the shocking news that former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to is in critical condition after being attacked near his home by a knife wielding motorcycle “hitman”.

For those not familiar, Lau was recently removed from his role as chief editor of the independent Chinese language daily and replaced by a pro-Beijinger in a move widely seen as yet another attempt to muzzle Hong Kong’s press freedom.

Just last weekend 6,000 protestors gathered in the wake of Lau’s demotion and a growing sense that Beijing is increasingly interfering in their SAR’s affairs in a way which is undermining the “one country, two systems” ideal HK was founded on post-97.

Ming Pao has apparently put up a HK$1m reward for info leading to the arrest of Lau’s attackers, who struck around 10.30am on Wednesday as he was walking from a breakfast eatery in Sai Wan Ho Street, Shau Kei Wan.

The 49-year-old was apparently slashed three times by the motorbike passenger, once on each leg and another cut exposing his chest cavity and lungs.

Police “sources” told the SCMP “it was a classic Triad hit”, intended to “warn him”, and presumably any other outspoken journalists in Hong Kong.

So is it really a Triad hit? And in that case, are the Triads now carrying out the will of the Communist Party?

Getting local gangsters to do their dirty work would certainly enable a canny bit of plausible deniability on the part of the latter. Just as it manages to keep arms length from any cyber incursions on foreign targets, so using the HK underworld as a proxy would keep Xi and co’s hands nice and clean, whilst scaring the crap out of outspoken local editors (if there are any left).

It’s not a given though. The criminal underground gangs of Hong Kong have historically been fiercely pro-China (ie anti-British/Russian/American etc) but not necessarily pro CPC. Is it simply that, like most local businessmen, Triad leaders don’t want to see the press rile their Beijing-allied business interests?

Or is this all just a massive bit of misdirection? A third party using the MO of the Triads to confuse the cops….

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club had the following statement:

The Club reiterates its view that the growing number of attacks against members of the press in Hong Kong needs to be taken seriously by the local administration. Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished.

No shit. There were 18 attacks on HK hacks in 2012, compared with one or two assaults in previous years, according to the HK Journalists’ Association. It’s still low compared to some repressive regimes, but then, Hong Kong is nominally a rule of law kinda place.

Either way there’s about as much chance of the perp being caught as charismatic CY Leung hosting his own prime-time BBC1 chat show. No-one really wants them caught, despite the tough words of the SAR government. Imagine the face-loss involved in HK and Beijing if they were? The police are clueless and incapable, even if they wanted to. Whoever did it probably slipped over the border many hours ago.

So where does that leave Hong Kong and its 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 sure.

I said last week that self censorship was the most insidious type of censorship because it’s virtually impossible for the public to find out how or why a story has been altered or spiked to suit the political leanings of its editors. Well, with the added incentive of “not getting knifed”, I’m pretty sure from now on there’ll be more journalistic punch-pulling going on in Hong Kong.

The brilliant thing about creating a climate of fear is that you only have to sanction something like this once and human nature will do the rest.

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.

Warning: make contain whistles

14 Jun

whistleThis week I have to write a little bit about this guy who blew someone’s whistle. I’m not sure if it was technically his whistle or the US government’s whistle but it was bloody loud enough to get everyone’s attention and now you can’t move for news of him. I’m talking of course about Edward Snowden, the former IT bod at defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who became China’s new favourite person after fleeing to Hong Kong to avoid capture by the US and possible charges of treason.

My observations are as follows:

IT technicians at defence contractors get paid too much. The Mira is a friggin’ swish hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui where Snowden was holed up, the inside of which I only ever get to see for IDC analyst conferences on virtualisation. Before that he was rumoured to be staying in the W. Seriously, this former information security engineer should be used as a poster boy to get more kids into IT: excitement, intrigue, a $200,000 a year salary, Hawaii home, a hot girlfriend who’s a professional pole dancer. And he still wasn’t happy? Some people. Let’s see how he likes the inside of Guantanamo.

Second; I can’t work out whether he’s incredibly naïve or very smart. Out of pure schadenfreude I’d quite like to see Snowden bundled into the back of a black van and never heard from again due to his decision to flee to Hong Kong because the people here “have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”. Part of that is true – people love complaining, usually with whistles, about the government and their rapidly eroding rights – but how often do they get their way? Only when it suits Beijing. Case in point, three pro-democracy activists have just been convicted of burning the HK flag in a protest. Seriously, in 2013 people are still getting done for that…

It doesn’t stop there. A Hong Kong Uni poll last month revealed the majority of people here (48 per cent) think the press in HK actively self censors, while Reporters Without Borders ranks it 58th on its World Press Freedom Index, four places down from 2012. Freedom House doesn’t rate Hong Kong too highly either – ranking it 71st in the world in terms of protection of civil liberties and listing it as only “partly free”.

This place exists in a “one country two systems” regime which protects civil liberties, press and internet freedoms and preserves the rule of law, unlike mainland China. But it’s never really been tested yet. The regime only continues to exist in this form because it allows HK to flourish as one of the world’s great financial capitals. In reality, the former British colony is ruled by property moguls and bankers and the politicians they elect and become; and who as a property mogul or financier wouldn’t want to appease Beijing with its huge coffers and vast potential market?

Having said this, I think on balance Snowden’s smarter than this.

He is appealing to HK-ers’ natural proclivity to fight for free speech, which they will do – again with whistles – at a rally on Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter that the free speech on this occasion is being threatened by the US rather than Chinese government. In fact, this unusual twist will also appeal to Beijing. Whether it’s part of the plan or not, he’s been making himself an attractive asset for the Party to keep hold of by disclosing some hugely embarrassing secrets about US state surveillance of its own citizens, as well as revelations of NSA hacking attacks on China and other countries. It’s all given the Communist Party huge leverage in the on-going cyber blame war with the US and will surely mean Beijing will not want to step in and over-rule Hong Kong’s decision on extradition – which could itself take forever.

save snowden

I should really be happy that the warrantless surveillance of citizens by US security agencies is being uncovered by an IT droid, but there are a few things that made me take an instant dislike to this guy.

First: “Edward”. The only people I know who actually use the full length version of this name are politicians, former kings of England and people trying to give themselves more gravitas than they innately possess. Unless it’s The Guardian that is trying to give Ed more gravitas than he innately possesses, in which case ignore me…

Second: The Guardian interview. Have you noticed how Snowden is at pains to say “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me”, and that “my sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”. Err, why didn’t you just try and stay anonymous then? Not easy, granted, but there is a touch of the Assange about his carefully rehearsed, media-friendly declamations.

Third: failure to grasp basic employment law. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he told The Grauniad. Again, I think you’ll find that disclosing top secret state-run surveillance programs is against the rules according to your former employer and possibly treasonous.

Fourth: I hate IT nerds in glasses and I can’t abide whistles.

That last one was a joke.

As for the future. Well, Hong Kong’s media unfriendly CEO CY Leung was giving nothing away in this cringe-worthy interview by what looked like a Bloomberg TV intern.

Despite the above rant, though, Death Noodle hopes Edward Snowden is able to stay exiled in Hong Kong for as long as possible. With any luck, until after 2047 when the “one country, two systems” rule runs out and he’ll finally be able to experience what it’s like to live in a proper tyrannical state. Although by then, no doubt, we’ll all be speaking bad Mandarin and defecating in lifts.