Attacks on the Press 1999: Hong Kong

Relations between the press and the Hong Kong government have deteriorated sharply in the two years since Britain returned the former colony to China. While the Hong Kong press remains one of the freest and most aggressive in the region, the strains of the “one-country-two systems” formula devised by communist China to govern the capitalist territory have begun to show. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s government sent especially disquieting signals in 1999.

In August, reacting to criticism of Hong Kong’s boisterous tabloid media, the influential consultative Law Reform Commission proposed the establishment of a government-appointed press council to monitor alleged invasions of privacy by the press. Under the hotly debated proposal, the council could impose a press code and levy stiff fines on media offenders. Denounced by local journalists as an attempt to muzzle the press, the proposal was also overwhelmingly opposed in a motion passed by the Hong Kong legislature. Even so, the commission refused to withdraw the proposal. At year’s end, it still seemed possible that the Tung government would seek to implement the press council plan in 2000.

In his annual policy address in October, Tung lectured the media on moral values and ethics. “We seek protection of the rights of the individual, yet we should also fulfill our social responsibilities and obligations,” he said, criticizing media for their coverage of sex and violence. “Press freedom should not become a pretext for disregarding media ethics.”

As a result of the pressure, Newspaper Society, an organization of media owners, started implementing its own plan for a non-statutory monitoring body as an alternative to a government-mandated press council.

The November reassignment of long-time Radio Television-Hong Kong (RTHK) director Cheung Man-yee, who became Hong Kong’s trade representative in Tokyo, further jolted local media. Long criticized by pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong, Cheung was praised by the local press for allowing RTHK to air tough criticisms of Hong Kong and Chinese officials. RTHK is a government department but is guaranteed full editorial autonomy under an independent charter; its freedom is seen as a bellwether for the future of independent journalism in Hong Kong.

Cheung’s transfer was widely linked to comments made in August by Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, who warned Hong Kong media not to promote Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s controversial call for “special state-to-state” relations with the mainland. Qian’s comments followed a July broadcast on RTHK that infuriated the mainland government (which considers Taiwan a renegade province of China) by allowing a Taiwanese representative to discuss Lee’s proposal. Cheung was replaced by her former deputy, who promptly sought to reassure the public that nothing would change at RTHK as a result of the management shake-up.

On December 5, government pressure was ratcheted up a notch when two dozen anti-corruption agents invaded the offices of the popular Apple Daily newspaper and seized boxes of files from a crime reporter, who was subsequently accused of bribing police officials for information. The newspaper, published by businessman Jimmy Lai, is famous for its anti-Beijing editorials and infamous for sleazy reportage. Even Lai has admitted that his paper sometimes crosses the line of good taste. But journalists were still shocked by the government action, which marked the first time in Hong Kong’s history that police had entered a newsroom and seized documents.

Hong Kong’s population of just under seven million people supports 45 daily and weekly newspapers and three TV stations, and is one of the most hotly contested media markets in the world. Some local journalists argue that ruthless competition has led to sensationalistic coverage pandering to the lowest tastes.

Many people object to the sex and violence that are standard fare on the garish front pages of Apple Daily and Oriental Daily News, the top-selling papers in Hong Kong. But observers fear that the Tung government is using popular displeasure with journalistic bad taste to fuel its campaign against the press. In one well- publicized case from 1998, the Apple Daily followed the story of a young wife who killed herself and her two children, apparently because she was distraught over her husband’s philandering. To illustrate the story, the paper persuaded the husband to have his photograph taken in bed with two prostitutes.

In another recent case, Wong Yeung-ng, the former chief editor of Oriental Daily News, receive a four-month jail sentence for calling local judges “swinish white-skinned pigs” and “mangy yellow-skinned dogs.” Wong did not write the articles but had authorized their publication in 1998. Even local press advocates declined to defend the editor over these comments, which were widely seen as an assault on the integrity of the judiciary and on Hong Kong’s vaunted rule of law.