Journalists in Hong Kong are voicing concern over the deteriorating state of press freedom in the special administrative region, lamenting growing mainland influence through ownership of traditional media outlets, an increase in self-censorship and attacks on journalists.

While various independent online publications have been founded in the past few years to counter these concerns, digital-only media still remains unrecognized by government institutions and journalists point to the looming threat of online censorship as Chinese practices potentially spill over from the mainland.

From its position as a press freedom hub in Asia in the early 2000s due to its separation from mainland legislation, Hong Kong is falling behind in international media freedom rankings, a development the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) credits to China’s new hard-line stance.

Mainland pressure

In an annual report released in July on the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to China and the implementation of the “one country, two systems” model, the HKJA  cautioned that free expression and press freedom in particular might suffer further harm under increased pressure from Beijing.

HKJA Chairman Chris Yeung, the chief writer for online platform Citizen News, told IPI that the room for dissent and, subsequently, a free press, is clearly diminishing.

“Media is a part of society, it is not immune to changes in the macro climate,” he said, noting that media remains especially vulnerable to financial interests when it comes to “politically sensitive issues, such as Hong Kong’s independence”.

The HKJA estimated in its report that nine out of 26 mainstream media outlets in Hong Kong are under Chinese control or have some degree of mainland ownership, leading to the muzzling of dissenting voices and self-censorship in these outlets.

“Both in terms of ownership and public perception, the number of truly independent media outlets is falling,” Yeung said, referring to polls in which journalists and the public said that self-censorship is a serious issue. “There are concerns that the problem has become entrenched in the media ecology.”

Perhaps the most notable buyout happened in early 2016, when Chinese Internet giant Alibaba acquired the influential English language daily South China Morning Post. Known previously for reporting on human rights, political scandals of the mainland elite and other sensitive topics that China’s state-run media outlets do not cover, the paper already faced accusations that it was becoming more pro-Beijing.

However, after the acquisition the paper saw a wave of staff departures and the sudden closure of its Chinese-language website, in addition to controversy over its 2016 publication of an interview with detained human rights activist Zhao Wei.

More recently, the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper sold its tabloid publication Next Magazine to a private investor, a move that led the media group’s labour union to raise concerns about censorship and intervention in the tabloid’s outspoken style.

Among the most worrying recent signs of mainland influence, the HKJA noted in its report, was the publication of Chinese activists’ “confessions” in Hong Kong media outlets. One example is the South China Morning Post’s aforementioned publication of an interview with Zhao Wei. The legal assistant in a human rights case who was arrested and charged with subversion in China was quoted as “regretting” her civil rights activism.

Such confessions, often obtained under duress, are usually aired in Chinese state media, as happened in the case of Lee Bo, one of five booksellers allegedly abducted from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay in 2015.

Another worrying trend, the HKJA noted, was a surge in the number of physical attacks and threats against journalists since 2014, when massive protests led to the birth of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “umbrella movement”. That year, HKJA documented several attacks on frontline reporters by pro-Beijing groups and even law enforcement.

In its latest report, covering the past year, the HKJA cited two instances of physical attacks, one in Hong Kong and one in mainland China, and a “well planned” harassment campaign of threats directed at the FactWire news agency and the Sing Pao Daily News.

Hope for online

Amid concerns over editorial independence in traditional media, Hong Kong saw a surge in independent media start-ups after the 2014 protests. Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), founded in 2015, told IPI that the proliferation of digital media outlets was “one of the under-reported, more positive things to come out of the umbrella movement protests”.

He explained: “We were set up as a direct reaction to the fact that Hong Kong has been tumbling in global press freedom indices. Although the situation is worsening as Beijing flexes its muscle, there is still relative freedom of expression in the city, so we are able to act as a watchdog and keep a check on power where other media fail.”

Since its founding, the HKFP, run by five full-time journalists based in Hong Kong’s Cyberport, has been joined by investigative news agency FactWire and news site Citizen News – respectively, in 2015 and 2017 – as well as a number of other smaller outfits.

Online media is more immune to outside interference, since the outlets are often non-profit and have no shareholders. However, online media faces a major obstacle, in that digital-only media is not recognized by Hong Kong’s government institutions such as legislature or police, despite condemnation from the government’s own ombudsman and by international organisations. Digital media still cannot acquire accreditation to official events or access to government press releases.

Some journalists also see a looming threat of mainland-style Internet censorship. Any Hong Kong publications not deemed suitable by the censors in Beijing – among them the HKFP – are blocked by China’s Great Firewall.

Both Grundy and the HKJA say they fear that possible new national security legislation, implementing a controversial provision in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, would make censorship possible. The provision, Art. 23, stipulates that Hong Kong must enact legislation to outlaw treason, sedition, subversion, secession and the theft of state secrets.

Laws enacting the provision have been shelved since 2003, when a draft bill was met with massive street protests, but many officials, including Hong Kong’s chief executive, have called to push the law forward.

A final obstacle is more basic: money. Despite having an easier time addressing sensitive issues in their reporting and, as a result, putting pressure on traditional media outlets to refrain from overt self-censorship, online media outlets still greatly rely on the public’s good will.

Some have been fortunate. The HKFP broke crowdfunding records in 2015 by reaching a funding goal of $150,000 HKD (approx. €16,000) in just two days. It ultimately raised a total of $600,000 (approx. €65,000) by the end of the funding drive. But sustainability is a continuing struggle.

“Several digital media outlets are battling to survive,” Grundy said. “Some may not make it through the year.”