Hong Kong still enjoys a partly free press but events such as the case of the missing booksellers and the acquisition of English-language daily the South China Morning Post by mainland company Alibaba have posed threats to press freedom, Freedom House said in its Freedom of the Press 2016 report released on Tuesday.
The US-based, government-funded NGO listed Hong Kong as “partly free” – the same as last year. The city ranked 18th in terms of press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region and 76th globally.
Globally, the report said that press freedom in 2015 declined to its lowest point in 12 years. Only 13 per cent of the world was awarded the “free press” status, while 41 percent enjoyed a partly free press; 46 percent were regarded as not free.
Hong Kong received a press freedom score of 39 on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being the best and 100 being the worst – a slight increase from its score of 41 in last year’s report.
“Hong Kong media remained lively in their criticism of the local government and to a lesser extent the Chinese central government in 2015,” the report said. “However, the freedoms that residents enjoy in the semiautonomous territory… continued to be undermined by mainland and local authorities who emphasize Beijing’s ultimate sovereignty.”
See also: Freedom House says China ‘role model’ for oppressive countries, flags SCMP sale to Alibaba.
The report named two events as key developments in the past year – the case of the five missing “Mighty Current” booksellers, and the acquisition of South China Morning Post by Alibaba.
“Although the paper had faced numerous accusations of self-censorship and pro-Beijing bias under the ownership of Robert Kuok, its purchase by Alibaba, a company with strong ties to the Chinese central government, stoked fears that whatever degree of editorial independence the paper still had would soon dwindle further,” Freedom House said.
The report also said that the case of Lee Bo and the missing booksellers of Mighty Current – a bookstore specialising in selling books and political titles banned on the mainland – alarmed journalists who were critical of Beijing.
“The widespread suspicion that Beijing was responsible for the disappearance of the five men led many to question whether Chinese authorities still respected Hong Kong’s autonomy or laws. The cases of Gui Minhai and Lee Bo—who held Swedish and British citizenship, respectively—raised fears that journalists and authors who anger Beijing may not be safe in Hong Kong or even in foreign countries.”
China, with a score of 87, was listed as “not free”. It ranked 39th out of the 40 countries in the Asia-Pacific Region, and placed 186 globally. The report noted that journalists were detained, imprisoned and forced to confess on television. It also said that the government was increasing efforts to block internet users from bypassing censorship efforts. The country’s legal environment scored 30/30 – the lowest possible rating.