The Hong Kong media have been making headlines in recent years, with Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the local paper Mingpao, being attacked by men with meat cleavers; a TV reporter getting his tie yanked by pro-government demonstrators last year; and Alibaba’s purchase of the South China Morning Post in mid-December of 2015.
But one one of the most talked-about and written about issues related to the media in recent years is press freedom in Hong Kong. A columnist at the SCMP and the vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Shirley Yam tells The Loop why it’s a pressing issue.
Born in Hong Kong, Yam was first inspired to get into journalism while still in high school. On a trip to Guangzhou, she spoke with a woman about life during the Cultural Revolution while she was a teacher. The woman’s students purged all of her documents so she could never return to her home of Hong Kong.
Yam was shocked by the events and wanted to tell people about what was going on in the world. A turning point in her life, Yam eventually found her way into journalism. Yam is a veteran journalist who has worked at the South China Morning Post, The Standard and various other local media outlets since the 1980s.
1. The British colonial government tried to control the media too…
But the way they did it was different. In my experience with the South China in the early 90s, when you wrote something very controversial in the paper that was not along the government line — especially when I was working with the SCMP —my boss or some senior officials would be summoned by the chief secretary, who was David Ford back then. The journalist who had written the controversial piece would be put away. He or she would no longer be assigned to cover that story and the boss would have to write a piece according to the government line.
It may sound similar to what’s going on now. There are two big differences, though. First, the Post was free to report scandals and call for resignation of senior government officials. Second, the high-handedness was rarely seen in the majority of the media, in particular the Chinese one.
2. The Chinese Government actively influences the media
The influence of Beijing over the media has definitely increased after 2003, which is when half a million Hong Kong’s citizens took to the streets to protest the national security law. Before 2003, Beijing was sitting in the back seat of the car; by 2003, they were sitting next to the driver, chatting to the driver; but recently in the past three to four years, you see them in the driver’s seat.
For example, the owner of AM730 [a free Chinese daily paper] actually wrote in his column that all the mainland-backed companies pulled their advertisements simultaneously in November 2013. There is only one explanation for when the mainland-backed enterprises all do something at the same time, which is that they were acting on orders from senior officials. You have to know that AM730 is one of the few papers that remains more independent.
3. You can tell a lot by who owns the local media
Newspapers in Hong Kong used to be family-owned. But gradually they moved into the hands of property tycoons, many of whom have major political appointments in Beijing. When you own the media, you get to influence public opinion, and this influence is very important for businessmen working in Beijing. What we’ve been seeing is how the editorial line of those papers changes with the change in ownership.
Look at Singtao Daily. When it was under Sally Aw, the paper had a very critical attitude towards Beijing and I’d say it was pro-Kuomintang [socialist ideology]. After the change in ownership to Charles Ho, who is a member of the standing committee of the People’s Congress of China, the paper was no longer friendly to Taiwan.
4. Press freedom is not about political beliefs
Whenever you oppose the government or you say something critical, then you will be automatically labelled as “the opposition.” But the fact is, press freedom has no color. Under press freedom, you are free to criticize the government and you are free to support the government.
People heard about the Hong Kong Journalists Association when we protested against the threats to Hong Kong’s press freedom. We don’t want to make news headlines. It’s only when things are really bad that we take to the streets.
5. Censorship isn’t the only way to stifle press freedoms
The HKJA is fighting a shockingly low standard for press freedom both locally and internationally: As long as you can still criticize the government, then you still have press freedom.
The British Member of Parliament was asking Martin Lee [founding member of the Democratic Party] and Anson Chan [former Hong Kong chief secretary] at a hearing: “Are you free to use radio? Are you free to watch TV? Are you free to have access to the Internet?”
His undertone is: if you’re still free to have access to radio, TV, and internet, then what threats to press freedom are you talking about? This is a very, very low standard. We are not talking about quantity but the loss of quality, independence and diversity.
The media consumer should consider being supportive of online media, which will see major developments this year. This year we see at least four online media launching in Hong Kong… we’re talking about the professional media.
In fact, many veteran journalists have left traditional media to go and work online. It is also a reflection of the constraints and suffocation that they are seeing in the traditional media, be it TV or newspapers or radio. My bet is the media consumer will be doing the same thing as well.