Hong Kong journalists are facing pressure to reduce reporting on the pro-independence movement just as public satisfaction in the city’s press freedom drops to a new low, according to an annual survey.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) on Tuesday released the results of its yearly poll, which involved 535 journalists and 1,003 members of the public. The general public gave the city’s press freedom 45 points out of 100, down from 47.1 the year before – a record low, and the sharpest drop since the survey was launched in 2013.

The HKJA unveil the 2018 Hong Kong Press Freedom Index. Photo: Citizen News.

“In the past, we used the metaphor of a boiling frog, but now it’s a bit different. Now, journalists and the public know that the water is getting hotter… but the government thinks the water is still fine,” said HKJA Chairperson Chris Yeung. “There is a big gap in understanding.”

Seventy per cent of the general public surveyed said that the expulsion of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet last year, as revealed by HKFP, hurt the city’s press freedom. Mallet’s work visa was not renewed after he chaired a talk by a pro-independence activist. For the first time, the public also listed China’s central government as the top factor swaying their assessment of press freedom.

The survey was conducted in January and February this year by the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong (HKUPOP).

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The journalists surveyed gave the city 40.9 points out of 100 for press freedom, a slight improvement from previous years. However, HKUPOP assistant director Karie Pang said the bump was not statistically significant and was similar to last year.

HKJA vice-chairperson Shirley Yam. Photo: inmediahk.net.

112 journalists – one in five of those interviewed – said they had experienced pressure from seniors not to report or to reduce reporting about Hong Kong independence, HKJA said.

Since the interviewees came from 30 to 40 media organisations, this meant there were three to four journalists receiving such pressures per organisation, said HKJA vice-chairperson Shirley Yam.

“Nothing is worse than self-censorship,” she said. “For each organisation, there are three to four articles missing or reduced, wouldn’t you say that is an important portion?”

The pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) was formally banned by the government last year under the Societies Ordinance.

Given that the law penalises “procuring subscription or aid” for outlawed groups, media organisations have expressed concern over whether journalists would fall foul of the law by reporting on events. Press freedom groups have also criticised the Hong Kong government as implementing Beijing’s vague and arbitrary “red line” on national security.

Andy Chan and Victor Mallet. Photo: Pool/SCMP.

In the survey, 81 per cent of journalists also said press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened compared to a year ago, with self-censorship and pressure from the central government listed as the top factors.

Sixty-nine per cent of the respondents said central government officials had increasingly emphasised “one country over two systems,” which made them uncomfortable in reporting dissenting voices.

The Hong Kong Free Press #PressForFreedom 2019 Funding Drive seeks to raise HK$1.2m to support our non-profit newsroom and dedicated team of multi-media, multi-lingual reporters. HKFP is backed by readers, run by journalists and is immune to political and commercial pressure. This year’s critical fundraiser will provide us with the essential funds to continue our work into next year.

Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.