The Hong Kong Press Freedom Index, compiled from data gathered from local journalists, has hit a record low, the annual poll showed. Close to 99 per cent of respondents said the Beijing-enacted national security law harmed the city’s free press.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) released its yearly survey on Monday, coinciding with the UN’s World Press Freedom Day. The project interviewed 367 journalists and 1,023 local residents separately. The journalists surveyed gave 32.1 points out of 100 for press freedom – an all-time low since the questionnaire was introduced in 2013.

Chris Yeung
Chris Yeung. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The public, on the other hand, gave 42.6 points – a slight improvement from last year’s record low – 41.9 points. But it was not statically significant, said Karie Pang of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Institute (PORI), which conducted the public survey in March.

Among the respondents who work in the journalism industry, 98.9 per cent said they believed the passage of the national security law last June had damaged the city’s press freedom. Often described as “draconian” by its critics, the sweeping legislation outlaws secession, subversion, collusion with foreign powers and terrorist acts.

The survey found that 85 per cent of journalists surveyed agreed with the statement that Hong Kong government was the source of suppression on free press.

Hong Kong Press Freedom Index 2021
A graph from PORI showing the Hong Kong Press Freedom Index scores since 2013. The blue line represents public rating, while the blue one indicates the scores given by local journalists. Photo: PORI.

PORI found 91.3 per cent of journalists who took the survey said Hong Kong’s press freedom saw a regression compared to the previous year, while 64.3 per cent of the citizens surveyed believed there was a decline.

Rock bottom?

“Press freedom is sinking, and [we] don’t know if it has reached rock bottom yet,” said HKJA chairman Chris Yeung.

Pang said the journalists polled gave “record low” scores to eight out of ten press freedom index indicators. They gave an average of 2.5 points out of 10 for staff facing pressure from a media company’s management, which they saw as affecting editorial freedom. The lower the score, the more common the situation was.

Instances of journalists self-censoring received 2.6 points, and cases of journalists facing difficulties obtaining information needed for reporting also received 2.6 points.

media press journalists press freedom journalism
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The head of the press group said some reporters expressed difficulty in finding people to give public, on-record reactions, including pan-democratic figures: “The chilling effect of the national security law will become even more prevalent… I don’t think there’s any room for optimism,” he said.

Yeung then criticised the government as being “media-unfriendly” or even “hostile” towards journalists, citing the case of documentary producer Bao Choy. Choy was convicted and fined last month for making false statements while obtaining vehicle license records for an RTHK programme that investigated alleged police misconduct during the 2019 Yuen Long mob attacks.

The HKJA chief quoted Chief Executive Carrie Lam as saying there was no special treatment for journalists. He said journalists play an unique role in monitoring and serving public interests, and they should have a “legitimate defence” to be determined by a court when there are questions of privacy infringement or defamation.

Bao Choy press freedom
Journalist Bao Choy appears in court on April 22, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Aside from Choy’s prosecution, the questionnaire named four other major incidents linked to press freedom over the past year, including the security law enactment and the police raid of the office of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. They also cited the police decision to only recognise government-registered journalists and the mass layoff of iCable employees.

Yeung said Hong Kong was only at an early stage of what he saw as a hardened government approach to rein in the media. In light of the security law and the government’s vow to act against “fake news,” Yeung warned journalists will face greater risks in the future, but he said many are still passionate about their work.

“We have the national security law, But if we have another one on fake news, that’s another knife,” Yeung said. “It’s true that some journalists are leaving, or planning to change their profession, but I still see a lot of passion and commitment among the journalists.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.