Photo journalists put their cameras on the ground during a protest in Hong Kong in 2011. Pic: AP

Watchdog voices concerns over Beijing’s influence, reports Asia Sentinel

The press in Hong Kong and Taiwan is under unrelenting pressure from local and Chinese governments, oligarchic owners and thugs employed to beat up reporters and editors, according to an exhaustive 4,500-word report released today by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The picture the report paints is one of slow but relentless erosion of what has long been regarded as not only the freest and most diversified press in Asia outside Japan but what has traditionally been the most important listening post on China itself. That is critical today with the Chinese government cracking down on the New York Times and Bloomberg for reporting critically on the vast riches amassed by members of the families of China’s top leadership. A long period in which western reporters could roam relatively freely in China and report critically appears to be coming to an end, renewing the importance of Hong Kong as a window into the mainland.

But, the CPJ report says, more than half of Hong Kong’s media owners have accepted appointments to the main political assemblies of China and are being absorbed into China’s political elite. They include Charles Ho of the Sing Tao news group, Richard Li of Now TV and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and Peter Woo of i-Cable television. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, many media owners have close business ties to Beijing, which they are loath to jeopardize by drawing disfavor on the mainland. An attempt to take over Next Media gadfly Jimmy Lai’s Taiwanese media interests was barely thwarted last year.

(MORE: RSF index shows another dismal year for press freedom in Asia)

While in the past Beijing relied on discreet ways to carry messages to Hong Kong media owners, such as asking middlemen to speak with newspaper editors, today they are contacting editors and journalists directly, the CPJ says, with the propaganda chief of China’s representative agency calling to complain about critical coverage of Chief Executive candidate CY Leung during last year’s elections. Three reporters at the Journal told CPJ that since the Liaison Office’s phone call, they were ordered to write fewer critical reports about Hong Kong’s leader and to back up any negative statements about Leung or his government—even in opinion pieces—with substantive supporting evidence.

Next Media publisher Jimmy Lai’s publications have endured a boycott by China-based advertisers since 2003. Next publishes the critical, widely circulated Chinese-language Apple Daily as well as newsmagazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In broadcast, meanwhile, Beijing exerts an even stronger influence because the high cost of news operations is prohibitive to independent media. The government also tightly controls broadcast licenses, and can reject applications without providing a reason.

A journalist at Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB), which was until recently one of only two free-to-air television broadcasters in Hong Kong, told CPJ that it is difficult for staff to challenge signs that the station’s managers voluntarily censor coverage.

Nowhere have issues of self-censorship been more pointed than at the South China Morning Post, which has had a series of chief editors since Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation sold it to Chinese-Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok in 1993, and which in 2006 lost the English-language competition, The Standard, which used to hold its feet to the fire before it cut back to becoming a free paper and a throwaway.

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