Hong Kong has risen to 70th place in the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index published on Wednesday. The French journalism watchdog cited “organised resistance to Beijing’s meddling” with violence against journalists almost coming to a halt.

Last year, Hong Kong was ranked 73rd out of the 180 countries and territories listed.

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“The resistance is being led by a handful of independent online media such as Citizen News, The Initium, Hong Kong Free Press and inMedia. After years of fighting, these new online outlets finally obtained official recognition by the authorities last year.”

The government had long forbidden digital-only media from attending government events to ask questions of officials, despite sustained pressure from local and international journalism watchdogs and criticism from the Ombudsman. They finally won access in 2017.

‘Growing interference’

Despite the rise in the city’s press freedom ranking, RSF said that journalists had found it tougher to report on local and national governance, stating that “its media have experienced growing interference by the Chinese authorities.”

“When the Chinese Internet giant Alibaba bought the South China Morning Post in late 2015, Hong Kong residents realised they would have to fight to preserve the press freedom to which they are accustomed.”

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Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

China was ranked fifth from the bottom in 176th place – the same position as last year. RSF said that Beijing’s model of state-controlled news was being copied by other Asian countries – such as Vietnam and Cambodia – and was threatening democracy in the region.

“Xi Jinping’s China is getting closer and closer to a contemporary version of totalitarianism. During President Xi’s first term, censorship and surveillance reached unprecedented levels thanks to the massive use of new technology,” the report said.

More than 50 professional and non-professional journalists remain under detention, with China “exporting its oppressive methods, information censorship system and Internet surveillance tools,” RSF added.

World Press Freedom Index 2018
World Press Freedom Index 2018 – click to enlarge. Photo: Reporters Without Borders.

Taiwan ranked 42nd in the list – also up three places, as South Korea jumped 20 places to 43rd. North Korea came in last.

‘Chilling effect’

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the question of whether Hong Kong’s media will be censored or face legal action for covering people who make pro-independence remarks will depend on the situation and the law.

It came as the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s Shirley Yam voiced concerns over the recent attacks on academic Benny Tai, who made hypothetical remarks about Hong Kong independence at a forum in Taiwan.

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Carrie Lam. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Meanwhile, an annual survey published earlier this month by the HKJA showed that the general public’s evaluation of press freedom had dropped to its lowest since the poll began in 2013. The study cited increasing pressure from the central government.

Editor’s note: The author of this article accepted an invitation to speak about HKFP at Wednesday’s RSF press conference.

Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.