AN OVERWHELMING 85 percent of Hong Kong journalists believe that press freedom has declined on the island, according to an annual survey by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).
Journalists were not alone in that assessment, with more than half of the general public concurring that media freedom has been curtailed over the past year. Self-censorship and the disappearance of booksellers have been major sticking points in Hong Kong’s media landscape.
The public rated press freedom in Hong Kong at 47.7 points out of 100 (with 100 meaning absolutely free), while journalists put it at 38.2, reported the South China Morning Post.
What was striking was the rate of the decline – for the first time since the survey was launched in 2013, the public’s score recorded a steeper fall relative to the journalists’ score. The former dropped by 1.4 points, while the latter dipped by 0.7 points compared to the previous year’s results.
“This shows that the deterioration in press freedom in Hong Kong is very severe. Not only media workers but the public have also noticed this problem”, said Sham Yee-lan, the chairwoman of the HKJA.
The results also showed that both journalists and the wider public perceive that self-censorship is common. When surveyed about the prevalence of self-censorship in Hong Kong, reporters gave a score of 7.1 out of 10, while the public put it at 5.8.
HKJA vice chairwoman Shirley Yam said the disappearance of bookseller Lee Po sparked “genuine fear” in Hong Kong.
“This fear will certainly affect our day-to-day work, in terms of how vocal we should be in writing our commentaries as well as reporting on mainland-related stories,” she explained.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997, the island has seen a gradual decline in press freedom. Today, Hong Kong members of the press operate under the threat of official censorship, arrests, physical attacks, cyberattacks, and job loss.
Freedom House, a major US watchdog organization, assessed Hong Kong’s media environment as “partly free” but recorded a five-year consecutive decline in press freedom beginning in 2010. In its 2015 global press freedom ranking, the watchdog placed Hong Kong at 83rd out of 199 countries.
Freedom House noted that “Beijing’s enormous economic power and influence over Hong Kong businesses, politicians, and media owners allow it to exert considerable indirect pressure on the territory’s media, leading to growing self-censorship in recent years.”
This grim picture is backed by another watchdog organization, Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Hong Kong 70th out of 180 countries in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index. That position is nine places below the city’s rank in 2014.
In a related story, controversy erupted in the island-city over a prominent TV station’s apparent decision to refuse internship to Hong Kong native students. TVB turned down interns from Baptist University, Shue Yan University and Chinese University, staff from those universities told the media.
Learning about the news, Hong Kong netizens expressed anger and dissatisfaction over what they perceived as a preference for mainland Chinese students. Over the recent years, the influx of mainland Chinese into Hong Kong has been met with ire and resistance from natives.
HKJA vice chairwoman Shirley Yam also urged local media outlets to set aside internship positions for native journalism students.
“Do mainland students know Hong Kong better than Hong Kong students?” she posed rhetorically.