It’s great to see our chief executive—not usually considered a big fan of the media—come out last week in robust defence of press freedom in Hong Kong. Too bad he didn’t really mean what he said.

Speaking at the annual HK News Awards sponsored by the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying sounded like journalism’s (not to mention Hong Kong’s) best friend, stating:

“The SAR government will continue to maintain freedom of speech in Hong Kong, not simply because it is the responsibility of the government or because it is a core value of Hong Kong, but because it is a necessary condition for Hong Kong as an international city. Freedom of the press is essential to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness and free society. In other words, protecting freedom of the press means protecting Hong Kong’s way of life.”


Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying at the HK News Awards. Photo: GovHK.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying at the HK News Awards. Photo: GovHK.

Unfortunately, nowhere in his administration do we see these inspirational words put into action. In fact, Leung has presided over a troubling erosion of the very core value to which he was so keen to give lip service at last Monday’s awards ceremony.

The chief executive can be eloquent when generalising about the importance of a free media, but he inevitably falls silent following specific instances in which that freedom is threatened.

What, for example, was Leung’s response to the mysterious disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers noted for selling titillating texts about China’s political elite?

Yes, he mouthed a few platitudes about maintaining “one country, two systems,” but in the end he allowed the outrage to go unchallenged as one penitent bookseller after another slunk back into Hong Kong from the mainland following what appeared to be forced confessions and false narratives written by Chinese security forces.

The booksellers have become an international cause célèbre that is ignored by the leader of their own city.

missing booksellers lee bo
Missing booksellers. Photo: HKFP.

In another case that drew worldwide attention, only silence issued from the chief executive’s office after former Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau Chun-to was severely wounded by a hired, cleaver-wielding assailant two years ago as he walked to his favourite breakfast haunt in Sai Wan Ho.

And, of course, in Leung’s HK News Awards speech last Monday, there was no mention of the sudden, highly suspicious sacking last month’s of another respected Ming Pao editor, Keung Kwok-yuen.

Keung’s abrupt exit has raised a rash of new questions about editorial independence at Ming Pao—which, let’s remember, had also demoted Lau shortly before he was assaulted—while sounding yet another alarm bell over self-censorship and diminishing press freedom in Hong Kong.

The newspaper issued a statement that attempted to explain Keung’s departure as a “cost-cutting” measure, but Ming Pao staff aren’t buying that.

Ming Pao journalists dressed in black at the HK News Awards to protest the sacking, and five of the paper’s columnists have submitted blank columns last week to express their displeasure.

Ming Pao
The Ming Pao Staff Association. Photo: Facebook/Ming Pao Staff Association.

The timing and nature of the decision to send Keung packing could not smell any fishier. On the day he was axed, the editor had approved a front-page story on the Panama Papers that named prominent Hong Kong politicians and tycoons, in addition to family members of the ruling elite in Beijing, as being among those stashing money in secretive offshore accounts.

Let’s recall that Lau’s demotion—which also sparked a staff protest—followed the newspaper’s publication of a similar report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealing the offshore assets of, among others, relatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Lau was replaced by Chong Tien Siong, who is widely perceived as pro-Beijing and the man responsible for the sacking of Keung.

Long regarded as one of Hong Kong’s most credible sources of news and a platform for fair and lively debate of the city’s biggest and toughest issues, Ming Pao is starting to look like a Chinese-language version of the South China Morning Post—now owned by the Alibaba Group headed by China’s Internet guru, Jack Ma—whose coverage of mainland affairs has become ever softer in the 18 years since Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule.

It seems just about everybody except the chief executive sees and understands what’s happening to the Hong Kong media.

press freedom hong kong

The latest University of Hong Kong poll shows public confidence in a free media has hit its lowest point since 1997. The Hong Kong Journalists Association, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and other groups that monitor press freedom warn us regularly of its steady decline in the city.

Indeed, since 2002, Hong Kong has plunged from 18th to 70th place in RWB’s annual ranking of countries in its Press Freedom Index–another point the chief executive failed to mention in his speech to award winners on Monday.

Leung’s omission is a reminder that the degree to which the media is free or bound is often determined not so much by what’s in the news but, rather, by what is left out or buried where few readers can find it.

While the chief executive lauds the principles of press freedom, Hong Kong media face constant and increasing pressure—from the central government in Beijing, from their proxies in the Leung administration and from powerful commercial interests that use their advertising dollars as a weapon of censorship.

All this said, however, there is no reason to give up on a free media in Hong Kong.

If you don’t see a sensitive story in Ming Pao, the SCMP or some other compromised traditional vehicle, you will nevertheless find it on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere in cyberspace.

The truth is still out there; just not in the usual places.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.