This op-ed was first published in Chinese on Amnesty International’s Chinese language website for World Press Freedom Day.
A robust and independent press is often said to be essential to any democratic society. Whilst Hong Kong is far from democratic, it is still seen as a respected bulwark of press freedom in greater China. And since citizens have no voice at the ballot box, the scrutiny of a free press in holding the powerful to account is even more critical in our free corner of Asia.
Despite this, the media industry and reporters in the city have come under increasing pressure in recent years. News outlets critical of China have faced advertising boycotts and cyber-attacks; book publishers have been literally plucked from the streets and abducted into the mainland; journalists have been exposed to violent attacks; revered media titles have shut down or have been bought out by Chinese conglomerates; and the rise of self-censorship in news rooms has all led to Hong Kong tumbling rapidly in global press freedom indices.
Last month, journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders cited deteriorating freedoms in the city for its decision to shun Hong Kong in favour of opening its Asia office in Taiwan. It was an embarrassing but understandable blow. How can one monitor Beijing’s stranglehold on the media if you are also likely to be vulnerable to its encroachment?
Nevertheless, the crackdown has triggered an equally strong response. Since the failed pro-democracy umbrella movement protests in 2014, there has been a blossoming of independent, online media voices which have emerged to fill the gap and provide a more critical take on local and national affairs.
Hong Kong Free Press is an English-language outlet founded as a response to the press freedom concerns in the city. As a non-profit, funded by the public, it is designed and structured to be as immune as possible from the ever-increasing threats. Yet the greatest hindrance to our reporting over the past two years has come directly from the local government itself, as it refuses to recognise the shift in reader habits and the proliferation of digital media outlets.
Its archaic policies prevent us from attending government press conferences or asking questions of officials on behalf of our readers. We have all the hallmarks of any legitimate news outfit: full accreditation from a local journalism body, five qualified full-time reporters, an office, and an archive of over 7,500 published news and comment pieces. But because we do not print on paper, the authorities – which readily promote the city as a tech and innovation hub – bar us from doing our jobs as reporters.
Politicians, press freedom watchdogs, the local ombudsman and Amnesty have united in condemnation of the ban, yet a months-long “review” of the situation has meant our staff are still excluded whilst traditional outlets and foreign broadcasters are accommodated.
On World Press Freedom Day, progressives in the city have one very conservative request – that the core values and civil liberties which differentiate us from communist China are maintained. As a new administration prepares to take power on July 1, we ask that the Hong Kong government recommits to protecting press freedom. We urge it to guarantee the safety of media workers, properly investigate attacks on journalists, and to join us in the 21st century in recognising the rise of digital outlets.