The idea that Hong Kong’s leaders will join in celebrations marking World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday is akin to Jackie Chan finally admitting that his acting is embarrassing.

media press freedom newspapers
Newspapers in Hong Kong. File Photo: GovHK.

Yet Hong Kong’s Basic Law clearly states that ‘residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication’. So where’s the problem? I think readers know the answer; indeed it would be insulting to spell it out.

Nonetheless, this is an occasion to assess the state of the media and to lament the degree to which what was once one of the freest media centres in Asia has slumped to the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders league, resting in 148th place, four places below Cambodia.

When I arrived in Hong Kong in the late 1980s the then-colony boasted one of the highest per capita newspaper readerships in the world, freedom of the press was not quite as marvellous as portrayed in official propaganda but it was most definitely in place. 

What was less impressive was that mainstream media outlets were largely under the thumb of a small group of media moguls and conglomerates, all of whom had their own agendas. 

And if you had a yearning for reading the approved line from Beijing, there were no fewer than three newspapers to choose from. There was even a fast-shrinking daily propagating the Kuomintang line, a clutch of publications that reliably reflected whatever it was that the government wanted them to think, and some who thought for themselves.

Apple Daily June 24, 2021
A supporter of Apple Daily holds a copy of its final edition outside the newspaper’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O on June 24, 2021, before the newspaper was forced to shut following accusations that it violated the national security law. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

The following decade, however, saw a burgeoning of choice, not least thanks to the dramatic eruption of Apple Daily, a paper that looked very different and mixed sensationalism with a unique take on the news.

English-language readers were given the choice of a third daily newspaper thanks to the launch of Eastern Express. I know something about this, as I was its founding editor. Speaking from direct experience, I can say that being a newspaper editor in those days meant that you were subject to all sorts of pressure from the government and other influential people, but no one was threatening to put you in jail for the paper’s editorial content and there was nothing like the proliferation of red lines that crisscross the media today.

That heady period of a flourishing media scene is but a distant memory. Apple Daily and a clutch of online news platforms have been forced to close and those who worked for these outlets are facing long periods of incarceration.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s role as an international media centre has shrunk considerably. Once a base for overseas publications covering both the Mainland and the region, Hong Kong can just about cling on to some of the overseas media outlets long established in the SAR, but many have moved staff away. Others, manned by single correspondents, have slipped quietly out the back door.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, once one of the world’s most vibrant press clubs, which opened its doors to all shades of opinion for vigorous debate, has abandoned this role. It hastily withdrew its highly regarded sponsorship of the Human Rights Press Awards and is now so denuded that it proved impossible to find a genuine foreign correspondent willing or able to serve as the Club’s president. Instead the post is about to be filled by a journalist from Tatler, the rich people’s lifestyle magazine.

Most foreign press organisations have banned their journalists from even serving on the Club’s board and certainly do not want to see them filling the high profile role of president because survival in this tough neighbourhood means keeping a low profile.

And yet vestiges of independent media are still to be found and there are brave journalists working in the mainstream who are attempting to do their best to report objectively despite their bosses insisting on self-censorship.

media journalism press freedom
File photo: StudioIncendo.

What is new is a fast-growing exiled Hong Kong media scene with online platforms reaching surprisingly large audiences, mainly in the SAR where the thirst for information and independent comment remains strong and largely unfulfilled by home-based outlets.

Following the well-trodden pattern of exiles providing information for citizens of the authoritarian states they have left, the Hong Kong media diaspora is doing what the samizdat (underground) media did during the years of the Soviet Union and a new exiled Russian media is doing to today. They are working from locations where freedom of expression prevails.

I am involved in the relatively newly formed association of exiled journalists, recently renamed as Hong Kong Media Overseas, which has just conducted a survey of the Hong Kong media diaspora. 

We found more than a dozen fast growing news outlets, largely staffed (usually on a voluntary basis) by media professionals from the SAR.

Microphones from media outlets at a press conference. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

It is estimated that the number of journalists from Hong Kong now living in exile is in the hundreds. Our researchers secured feedback from over 100 of them and found that although they were finding it tough to establish themselves in their new homes, only a single respondent indicated regret over having left Hong Kong. 

When I was in Hong Kong, I was frequently asked by pro-government figures why journalists could not bring themselves to write more positively, highlighting the good news. I would love to be more positive but the news is the news, our job as journalists is to make sense of it not to create a false reality.

Once you go down the road of news as propaganda, people quickly ignore it. Anyone doubting this assertion need only look at the massive decline in viewership of Hong Kong’s terrestrial television stations, the plunge in newspaper circulation and the rapid growth of news outlets who do not see it as being their business to report positively, regardless of facts.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship