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Media Experts: Reporting in Hong Kong Becoming Increasingly Difficult

Hong Kong registered a slight improvement in media freedom rankings out this week, though experts underscore the environment remains restrictive for journalism.

In its annual World Press Freedom Index, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, ranked Hong Kong 140 out of 180 countries, where 1 indicates the best environment.

The ranking is an eight-place improvement of the region’s score from 2022, but RSF notes that Hong Kong is facing an “unprecedented setback” since the introduction of a national security law in 2020.

Introduced following widespread anti-government protests, the security law prohibits acts that include secession, subversion and foreign collusion, none of which is clearly defined. Hong Kong authorities have used that and a colonial-era sedition law to arrest and jail anti-government dissidents, including journalists.

Beijing says the law was necessary to stabilize the city. Cedric Alviani, RSF director for East Asia, told VOA that Hong Kong’s new ranking doesn’t mean its media environment has improved.

“In our evaluation of the media, it is not only the respect of editorial independence but there are other criteria like the economy, the environment – [which] still allow journalists to report in Hong Kong,” Alviani said.

“Hong Kong had the biggest downfall ever last year, falling from 80 rank to the 148 rank. The problem is there is a list of topics, which are strongly not recommended to cover, and journalists know that the risks are much harsher punishments than before. It is impossible to report in Hong Kong,” he noted.

Asia accounts for the three worst countries globally, with North Korea, China and Vietnam at the bottom of the index. But when press freedom declines even more elsewhere, sometimes the figures can bounce, Alviani said.

“There are sometimes some results that may look to go against reality, but it is just a question of which other countries go before and after. In no way the fact that Hong Kong has risen slightly in the index this year reflects any improvement of the freedom of the press in Hong Kong,” he said.

The Hong Kong Security Bureau responded to VOA’s request with comments from a government spokesperson.

“The allegations by the organization concerned when publishing the index are totally groundless,” the email reads.

“Hong Kong residents enjoy the freedoms of the press and speech, both of which are protected under the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. Article 4 of the National Security Law also stipulates that such freedoms enjoyed by the residents of the HKSAR shall be protected in accordance with the law in safeguarding national security in the HKSAR.

“However, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute, and can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Journalists, like everyone else, have an obligation to abide by all the laws,” the Hong Kong’s Security Bureau email stated.

Previously, officials have defended the ability of media to operate and denied in comments to VOA that laws are used to target journalists or critics.

Hong Kong was once a model for press freedom in the Asia region, but since the security law came into force, at least 12 media outlets have closed, including pro-democracy outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News, according to a report by International Federation for Journalists.

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, has been in jail since the end of 2020 following a string of charges in relation to Hong Kong’s political unrest and could face life imprisonment this year.

Lai, 75, is set to go on trial in September on charges of foreign collusion. Media experts have said the trial will indicate the level of Hong Kong’s press freedom.

Content rules and regulations are also affecting how media outlets report.

In February, the government adopted a measure under which five free-to-air broadcasters, three television and two radio stations must transmit 30 minutes of national security programming per week.

The stations include TVB, ViuTV and HOY TV, Commercial Radio and Metro Broadcast, which all must include content of relating to “national education, national identity and national security law” under the news “current affairs” category.

Hong Kong’s Communications Authority recommended the implementation, local media reported.

Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, says the regulation appears aimed at making Hong Kong outlets more like the tightly controlled media in mainland China.

“I see this new move as part of a tightening on Beijing’s control over Hong Kong media and a shift in the balance between formal oversight and the leverage through self-censorship, which had been a feature of the past,” he told VOA via email. “It is clearly part of a ‘long game’ to align Hong Kong media with the mainland. I would certainly assume that at some point all Hong Kong’s media will indeed be shaped by [China’s] central government.”

Alviani echoed what Cull said and indicated that more media outlets in Hong Kong could be affected.

“Over the past years the Hong Kong government has consistently borrowed from the Chinese toolbox in a softer way, but how long will it be that soft?” Alviani asked.

“When you start violating press freedom in that kind of way, first it’s five media, then it’s 10, then you add media that are public, then private media, this is how things can go. It’s a true concern because even if it’s only five media so far, we do not know how this could extend in the future,” he said.

RSF issued a statement urging the Hong Kong government to withdraw the regulation.

Rose Luqiu Luwei, a television journalist and associate head and professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the regulation serves a purpose for the government.

“The government’s new regulation is not unique in Hong Kong. Depending on the country, particular missions may be entrusted to public broadcasting. One such mission, fairly frequent, is to strengthen national identity,” Luqiu told VOA by email.

The professor said the government is using free-to-air media outlets so they can act as a public broadcaster, like Hong Kong’s sole public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, or RTHK.

“To obtain a free-to-air media license, one has to meet some pre-requirements set by the government to fulfill a certain degree of role as a public broadcaster. The fundamental principle for the government to make the new regulation is that free-to-air media has some responsibility for acting like public broadcasters,” Luqiu said.

“RTHK is changing its role as a public service broadcaster toward state media, which acts as the propaganda tool of the government to disseminate official messages and strengthen national identity. It is not surprising to require free-to-air media to play the same role,” she said.

Media analysts have highlighted concerns at RTHK, which is government funded, over its editorial independence after undergoing changes including staff departures, and the airing of government-directed content.

Under a new director of broadcasting, archived content was removed online, and long-lasting programs were canceled.

Source: Voice of America