Hong Kong has plunged seven places in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index “because of its treatment of journalists during pro-democracy demonstrations,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says. China, meanwhile, was ranked 177th as it sought a “new world media order,” according to the French journalism watchdog.

Hong Kong was ranked 73rd in 2019 – its new ranking marks a significant drop from 18th, where the city stood back when the index was created in 2002. The press freedom rating is released annually to highlight the media freedom situation in 180 countries and regions and measures pluralism, the independence of the media, quality of legislative frameworks and the safety of journalists.

2020 World Press Freedom Index. Photo: Reporters Without Borders.

The report highlighted the treatment of reporters by the authorities during protests: “They have been the targets of police violence… the semi-autonomous territory [has] fallen seven places, one of Asia’s biggest falls.”

It also raised alarm over the regional decline in press freedom: “[T]he past decade has seen a steep decline with the adoption of undemocratic and totalitarian practices, the emergence of a populism that unleashes hatred on journalists, and extreme media polarization.”

2019 protests

Police have been repeatedly accused of targeting reporters during last year’s anti-extradition law demonstrations, with photos and videos showing officers pepper-spraying members of the press at close range. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has issued dozens of open letters to complain about police obstruction of journalists.

Riot police deploying pepper spray at photojournalist. Photo: Nasha Chan/Stand News.

Meanwhile, high-ranking government officials have openly criticised public broadcaster RTHK for their reporting on political affairs. Backed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau condemned RTHK’s The Pulse for allegedly breaching the One China Principle after the programme questioned a World Health Organisation advisor about Taiwan’s membership status.

File photo: United Social Press.

On Monday, the Communications Authority also warned RTHK over its show Pentaprism, saying that there were substantiated complaints over an episode’s accuracy, incitement of hatred, fairness and factual contents.

In an episode aired on November 20 last year, a guest host criticised the police handling of the unrest around Hong Kong Polytechnic University, during which protesters were cornered by riot police. The authority claimed the show inaccurately quoted a foreign journalist who stated that the police acted unpredictability. The authority said the remarks were “irresponsible, and could be regarded as a hate speech with the effect of inciting hatred against the Police…”

The months-long demonstrations escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment.

Hong Kong now sits two places below Timor-leste in the index, and below Toga, Mongolia and Kosovo.

‘New world media order’

China, which Reporters Without Borders identified as an authoritarian regime, was ranked fourth from the bottom above Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. “China, which is trying to establish a ‘new world media order,’ maintains its system of information hyper-control, of which the negative effects for the entire world have been seen during the coronavirus public health crisis.” The NGO cited the arrest of three citizen journalists who reported on the coronavirus crisis as an example of the extensive censorship and suppression of media freedom during the pandemic.

The report also mentioned the country’s persecution of dissident journalists and over 100 currently detained journalists of whom the vast majority are Uyghurs.

“One of the most salient crises is geopolitical, caused by leaders of dictatorial, authoritarian or populist regimes making every effort to suppress information and impose their visions of a world without pluralism and independent journalism,” the report said.

Index scores are calculated by experts using questionnaires sent to journalists across the world in 20 languages. Scandinavian countries – Norway, Finland and Sweden – were the top three countries in the 2020 index.

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Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.