China's tightening grasp on Hong Kong's press freedom

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is deeply worried that Hong Kong’s media managers lack sufficient independence to face ongoing political pressure from China.

The issue has reached a critical point with China’s decision to hold the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive using a definition of “universal suffrage” that critics say does not meet international standards. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party decided on August 31 that voters will have a choice of only two or three candidates, all of whom must receive more than 50 per cent support from a 1200-member electoral committee before they compete for the popular vote.

Genuine universal suffrage has been a crucial demand of the Occupy Central movement, which has promised to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district if future elections are not democratic.

Two days before the Standing Committee’s decision, Edward Chin Chi-Kin, a columnist for Hong Kong Economic Journal (HKEJ), received an email saying his weekly column would be cancelled because the page was to be redesigned. Chin, an outspoken hedge-fund manager, leads Occupy Central's Finance and Banking Professional Group, which comprises of around 80 of the city's banking and finance high-fliers. HKEJ management said it had been planning the move for two months. Chin, who has been writing the column for nine years, called HKEJ’s editor-in-chief, Alice Kwok Yim-Ming, but she turned off her mobile phone.

According to The New York Times, Chin said: “It’s a political decision. It’s highly political to axe my column right now. They know my pro-democracy stance.”

The Independent Commentators Association, a Hong Kong group that advocates for media freedom and diversity, said the HKEJ could not escape suspicion that political pressure had influenced the editorial decision, because “objectively HKEJ has lost the columns of someone who supports the views of Occupy Central”.

The HKEJ is controlled by Richard Li, a Hong Kong businessman who is the son of the Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-Shing. On September 2, one of HKEJ’s founders, Lam Hang-Chi, who is also a columnist for the journal, announced he had sold all his shares in HKEJ to Clermont Media Ltd, an offshore trust company controlled by Richard Li.

On August 30, one day before the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced its decision on the voting system in 2017, the title and content of a news report in Hong Kong-based newspaper Mingpao was changed in its Canadian edition. According to Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, the original headline said the Occupy Central Movement would gather the next day to announce the beginning of a civil disobedience campaign, and the Civil Human Rights Front would launch a yellow ribbon campaign (a symbol of resistance). However, in the Canadian edition, the headline was changed to “Occupy Movement is classified as anti-state power”. As well, the Canadian version of the story included an interview with Chen Zuoer, the former deputy director of Beijing's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which did not appear in the original article. In the past, Chen has made several speeches that were in line with the Central Government’s position on the Occupy Central Movement.

The 1200-member nominating committee has been severely criticised by intellectuals, pro-democracy legislative councillors and civil society organizations, who say the majority of its members are pro-Beijing and pro-establishment. Most importantly, critics say the Standing Committee reneged on its 2007 promise that it would not consider itself bound to the existing system.

Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of the NPC Standing Committee, flew from Beijing to Hong Kong to explain the decision at the AsiaWorld-Expo on September 1. The Hong Kong Police Department tightened up security at the expo, deploying thousands of police officers. A journalist with Hong Kong-based Apple Daily was dragged away by two officers, who said he did not follow the correct route back to the press zone. Many journalists complained that they were verbally abused outside the venue by more than a dozen people supporting Beijing’s stance. Several journalists were attacked by people with umbrellas. One man tried to block a photographer, saying he held the rights to his own image. The man spoke Mandarin Chinese, rather than Cantonese, which is the common language of Hong Kong.

The Occupy Movement said that Occupy Central must proceed because “the aim of ensuring that the Chief Executive election in 2017 meets international standards was brutally strangled by the Standing Committee” on August 31.

The IFJ Asia-Pacific Office said: “Hong Kong is facing a very difficult time. The media should protect diversity and not be a mouthpiece for the authorities. It is distressing that Hong Kong lacks media managers who are able to fight for press freedom. The individuals at management level are not inexperienced journalists, but they have clearly forgotten their duties and their mission as journalists.

“It appears that media managers are getting more sophisticated at diluting critical voices under the guise of ‘revamping the page’ or ‘making the content of the article more balanced or up to date’, and so on. People who support the Chinese Central Government or the Hong Kong Government may express their views, but they should respect other people’s rights as well as press freedom if they really understand democracy.”

We urge all of Hong Kong’s media personnel to stand firm and report all violations to the Hong Kong Journalists Association, an independent journalists association which is an affiliate of the IFJ. We also urge all international media organizations, academics and legal professionals to support journalists in Hong Kong and be vigilant regarding press freedom and freedom of expression at this critical moment. 

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0946 

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

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