Attacks Against Freedom of Press in Hong Kong

Five weeks ago, Francis Torres wrote an article for BPR explaining the dangers that journalists face internationally. Among many indicators regarding the protection that journalists receive in different countries, the World Press Freedom Index stood out.  In this Reporters Without Borders index, it was unsurprising to note that China occupied the 173rd place (out of 179) in the ranking of countries that protected freedom of press. In contrast, Hong Kong — China’s Special Administrative Region — was ranked 58th. In other words, about two-thirds of the world was ranked in between them.

This sharp gap between Chinese and Hong Kong press is only one indicator of the different realities that these two regions live in, and it represents an importance source of pride for Hong Kong residents: “Even after Britain’s hand-over to China in 1997, Hong Kong is still clearly distinctive from the rest of the Mainland. It is not subjected to Beijing.”

However, the recent attacks against journalists in Hong Kong suggest that the wide gap between Hong Kong and Chinese press could soon start shrinking. On February 26, Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former chief editor of the Ming Pao newspaper, was attacked with a meat cleaver as he got out of his car in the Chai Wan district of Hong Kong. Lau, who received three deep wounds in his back and legs, was taken to the hospital immediately and is now stable. Meanwhile, although the aggressors escaped from the police, official reports stated that two suspects were arrested in Guangdong province last week, in addition to seven possible accomplices.

According to the Hong Kong police commissioner, Tsang Wai-hung, the two main suspects are believed to be members of a triad and thus, he suggested, Lau’s journalism might not have been the reason for the assault. Yet, given the context in which Lau was removed from Ming Pao and the subsequent demonstrations taking place in Hong Kong in favor of free press, it is difficult to believe that the attack was not politically motivated.

Founded in 1959, Ming Pao has been known for its critical coverage of the Chinese government. Its recent participation in the investigations on Chinese leaders using global tax havens was a groundbreaking effort of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to increase the global accountability of offshore account holders. Even though media companies constantly declared that Chinese authorities had warned them not to publish the material, the reports successfully exposed some “princelings” (elites tied by blood or marriage to the current leadership or Party elders) and their shockingly wealthy assets in the British Virgin Islands and Samoa. The divulgation of such information increased public anger and suspicion regarding the corrupt actions of the Chinese government and sparked the rage of the regime.

Bearing this in mind, Mr. Lau’s removal from Ming Pao in early January, as well as the decision to replace him with pro-Beijing Malaysian editor Chong Tien Song, can hardly be perceived as a coincidence. The dismissal of Mr. Lau was viewed by many as an effort by Beijing to suppress the newspaper’s independence, and it prompted an outcry in the media community. As a result, a mass protest was organized on February 23, where between 2,200 and 6,000 demonstrators (numbers according to police and organizers respectively) marched down to Victoria Harbour, demanding free press in the region.

The vicious aggression against Lau is unprecedented, and therefore even if the aggressors are confirmed to be part of the triad, the message that most Hong Kong journalists perceived is clear: Do not mess with the government. It was only three days after the protest that Lau was maimed on a street, in broad daylight. Even though pro-Beijing newspaper The Global has dismissed the claims that the government was behind the attack, it is difficult to believe that Ming Pao’s radical exposure of the Red royalty and the mass protests in Hong Kong, had nothing to do with it. After all, Lau is not the first journalist who has recently been fired after raising criticisms against Beijing. TV talk show host Li Wei-ling and commentator Johnny Lau are among others who have also had their contracts suspended after displeasing the central government through their articles. The burning of 26,000 copies of the newspaper Apple Daily, as well as reports of self-censorship when covering the civil movement #OccupyCentral, are further evidence of how freedom of journalism is quickly declining in Hong Kong. 

The implications of this censorship in Hong Kong go beyond the importance of reporting daily news: Hong Kong’s most important elections in history are scheduled to take place in 2017. Beijing has promised that this election will be the first one conducted with universal suffrage, in which each citizen will have a vote. It is the duty of Hong Kong and international media to inform the public about all the candidates in order to ensure that the public makes an informed decision.

Unfortunately, Beijing has already forbidden open nominations for chief executive candidates and has decided to submit them to preliminary screening. In other words, the pool of candidates is already limited to the ones that Beijing approves of. For this reason, it is all the more vital for Hong Kong media to widely report on all candidates, for Beijing will support its own through the newspapers led by pro-Beijing functionaries.

The recent stabbing of Lau represents a significant challenge not only to fellow journalists, but also to Hong Kong in general. With the long-held ability to criticize the Chinese government, its “special” status of greater freedom and independence and the upcoming elections, it is of vital importance that journalists stand their ground and avoid self-censorship. Otherwise, the decrease in freedom of information will result in an even more profound intervention from Beijing in Hong Kong’s present (and more alarmingly, future) behavior. Regrettably, the escalation of violence against Lau will most likely deter journalists from writing articles that displease Bejing. Then, the responsibility to protect freedom of press in Hong Kong (especially in the run-up to the 2017 elections) will fall greatly upon the international observers and media.