Pro-democracy protesters hold umbrellas under heavy rain in a street near the government headquarters in Hong Kong late on Tuesday, September 30. (AP)
Pro-democracy protesters hold umbrellas under heavy rain in a street near the government headquarters in Hong Kong late on Tuesday, September 30. (AP)

Amid Hong Kong protests, journalists battle misperceptions of press freedom

EDITOR’S NOTE: As pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong intensify ahead of China’s National Day on Wednesday, some reporters have been caught in the melee. But for Hong Kong’s journalists, there is more at stake than run-ins with the riot police.

Among the demonstrators’ demands are that Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying resign and the Beijing government back away from its plan to restrict candidates for the 2017 elections–concessions that few expect to be met. Although Leung demanded today that the demonstrations end immediately, the government has not made efforts to disperse the protesters since Sunday, when riot police firing tear gas and pepper spray failed to drive them from the streets. Using troops (as proposed by some mainland newspapers) seems to be an untenable solution–too reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. But the Hong Kong demonstrations present enough of a threat that the Beijing government has expanded its restrictions on social media to include Instagram.

For a sense of the crowd dynamic, you can find Apple Daily‘s live streaming coverage here. Apple, with Hong Kong’s second-largest paid readership, is the strongest anti-China voice in Hong Kong, a lightning rod under constant pressure to pull back from its strong anti-Beijing stance.

Press freedom has increasingly come under attack since China resumed control of Hong Kong in 1997, a reality on which CPJ has frequently reported. The year 2013 “has been the darkest for press freedom for several decades,” the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said in its annual review, Press Freedom Under Siege. And 2014 is proving to be worse, says Shirley Yam, the association’s vice-chairperson.

Yam, who has been at the forefront of HKJA’s running battle with the Hong Kong’s government, took the time to explain the context of what is happening in Hong Kong’s streets from a journalist’s viewpoint, and to call for more international support:

Press Freedom is like oxygen to many of us in a free society. That has been my belief when I started the campaign for that course, but I am beginning to believe I could not have been more wrong.

My first wake-up call came a day after the Hong Kong’s first press freedom rally in February. The Hong Kong Journalists Association had organized it to protest the increasingly tight media controls in the world’s freest economy.

We had been seeing independent voices coming under pressure. Kevin Lau, the respected chief editor of Ming Pao–one of the few remaining independent newspapers–was sidelined to its online medium shortly before he was attacked by knife-wielding men in February. A key government critic, Lee Wai-ling, was fired by Commercial Radio without any explanation whatsoever. Many long-time columnists started coming under heavy pressure from editors to lower the criticism in their copy.

Thousands joined the early rallies to show their anger over these developments. But not all our colleagues take the same view. A privately-owned radio station invited me to talk about the rally. In the live program, I said the association would be speaking to some secondary schools on the importance of press freedom.

“So you are going to brainwash our kids,” replied the host, who was once a journalist. To her, press freedom was not something neutral, something that everyone understands to be fundamental for democracy. She’s not alone. Many have labelled HKJA’s protest against tightening media control as campaign for the so-called pan-democrats, the broad grouping of parties and organizations behind the current protests. Our critics’ belief is that the media got Hong Kong embroiled in the current political turmoil by being “over-critical” of the government. For them, the rationale is that “since the press has not been fair, they must be controlled.”

Outside the profession, the attitude is similar: In an email exchange with me, a fund manager complained that the press was not criticizing the “violence” used by an anti-government group during a demonstration. I emailed back a list of the headlines in every major newspaper in town. All condemned the violence. His reply was: “Oh, I read the headlines of Apple Daily. I didn’t know about the rest.”

When people talk to me about how the press has performed, what they have in mind is always the Apple Daily. What the majority report–in particular the quiet self-censorship–goes unnoticed.

While one cannot expect the man-in-the-street to make comparative studies of the media, the “experts” are not doing any better, either. I was invited to brief a dozen of diplomats on press freedom in Hong Kong after the savage attack on Kevin Lau.

A top diplomat from a major democratic country said: “I am not sure what you mean by tightened press control. I can still read about the democrats’ criticism of the government in the newspapers every day.” Another diplomat echoed this view.

The reality is that analyzing what you can see is certainly a much easier job to do than understanding what you cannot see.

Given such responses from some of the locals as well as Hong Kong-based diplomats, one should not be too surprised with the response from other parts of the world. One of the most pathetic views has come from British Parliamentarian John Stanley who is also a veteran on its foreign affairs committee. He was at a committee hearing with former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong Anson Chan and political activist Martin Lee, who were in London to urge the British government to speak up for the people of Hong Kong.

This seasoned British parliamentarian asked: “You talked about the intimidation of the press….Has there been or has there not been any clamp down on access to radio for ordinary people in Hong Kong? Has there or has there not been any clampdown on access to television for ordinary folks in Hong Kong? Has there been or has there not been any restriction from Internet access for ordinary folks?”

Most people in a free society will be more perceptive compared to Mr. Stanley’s low standard of press freedom. Yet, when no journalist has been jailed and people are still free to say whatever they want, it is hard to get the world’s ears to hear that Hong Kong’s press freedom is being strangled. Our only answer to that is to do what a journalist does best–report and expose the truth and leave it to the reader to judge.