Fewer Hongkongers have expressed trust in public broadcaster RTHK, a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has found, as local media scholars said initial press freedom concerns under the Beijing-imposed national security law “became reality.”

rthk television house broadcast headquarters logo (1)
RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In the Digital News Report 2022 released on Wednesday, the institute at the University of Oxford found that 53 per cent of the 2,010 Hong Kong residents they surveyed in late January and early February said they trusted RTHK.

The figure marked a six per cent decrease from last year, when 59 per cent of Hong Kong respondents expressed trust in the government-funded media organisation. It represents a further drop compared to 63 per cent in 2020.

Digital News Report 2022
Digital News Report 2022 on the use of media online and offline. Photo: Digital News Report 2022 screenshot.

RTHK, which underwent a government-mandated editorial overhaul last year, was the only Hong Kong media organisation listed in the study that saw a drop in the proportion of respondents expressing trust.

Trust in other media brands “increased somewhat,” the annual report stated, while the institute found that 41 per cent of Hong Kong respondents said they trusted the news in general – a stable result compared with 40 per cent last year.

Digital News Report 2022
Digital News Report 2022 on media brand trust scores. Photo: Digital News Report 2022 screenshot.

In the report’s overview of the media landscape in Hong Kong, Chinese University (CUHK) journalism academics Francis Lee, Michael Chan and Chen Hsuan-ting described the city’s press freedom as facing “unprecedent strain.”

They cited the national security police raids and arrests at the now-defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and now-disbanded independent outlet Stand News last year. They also cited the subsequent shutdown of another independent platform, Citizen News, in January. The academics said the closures led to over 1,000 job losses, and led journalists to think about “how they can do their work under the new rules.”

“Initial concerns that the national security law enacted in 2020 would suppress critical news coverage became reality,” the CUHK scholars wrote.

National security law
A banner inside the Hong Kong government headquarters promoting the national security law. Photo: GovHK.

The study found that the proportion of Hong Kong respondents consuming other popular online outlets did not increase significantly following the shutdown of Apple Daily and Stand News, though the reach of independent news site InMedia rose from 4 per cent to 9 per cent over the past year.

CUHK School of Journalism and Communication Director Francis Lee told HKFP on Wednesday that the online survey was only “a snapshot in January 2022.” The timing of the research could affect the extent to which the repercussions of the shutdown of Apple Daily and Stand News were fully reflected, he said.

“It certainly takes some time for the scenario to continue to evolve – it takes time for some media organizations to reposition themselves and it takes time for some news audience to reconstruct their news use habits,” he said.

Apple Daily last edition June 23, 2021 Mong Kok
The last edition of Apple Daily. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

When asked if the survey should expand its scope in the future to account for the emergence of small-scale independent media platforms – many of which were founded by ex-staff members of the defunct outlets – Lee said that would be “ideal.” But the study could not “include way too many items,” he said, and the ambit of the survey would also depend on how the news scenario in Hong Kong evolves.

“If there are very strong signs that those pages have indeed become prominent channels through which people access news in Hong Kong, then there will be a stronger need to consider ways to incorporate at least some of them into the survey,” he said.

Drain away ‘filth’

On Sunday, Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong Luo Huining attended an event congratulating state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao on its 120th anniversary.

“In a diversified society like Hong Kong, we especially need media that love the country and Hong Kong, which can drain away filth and bring in fresh water, and we need patriotic media people who hold tight to their mission and shoulder their responsibilities,” Luo said.

John Lee
Chief Executive-elect John Lee. Photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile, incoming chief executive John Lee said press freedom in Hong Kong was “unlimited” as long as journalists did not breach the law. He said the idea was in line with international standards.

Authorities in Hong Kong have floated a “fake news” law to tackle what they see as misinformation. The Home Affairs Bureau said last month that it had commissioned a consultancy to look into legislation enacted in overseas jurisdictions in relation to the regulation of disinformation and make recommendations for ensuing legislation.

Correction 16/6: Owing to an error introduced by an editor, a previous version of this report incorrectly attributed quotes from Luo Huining to a letter he read from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.