Press Freedom in Hong Kong Nearly Dismantled, Report Says

By Danny Tang
Danny Tang
Danny Tang
April 29, 2022 Updated: April 29, 2022

Since the Chinese regime imposed the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, almost all independent and pro-democracy media outlets have been forced to close, and many journalists and media executives have been jailed and are awaiting trial.

The freedoms of the once-flourishing international media center were almost completely dismantled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), leaving very few organizations and individuals willing to speak out.

A recent report (pdf) by Hong Kong Watch (HKW), a human rights organization headquartered in the UK, details the variety of ways the crackdown on the press has developed in the former British colony in hopes of bringing the events to people’s attention.

The report titled “In the Firing Line: The Crackdown on Media Freedom in Hong Kong” drew on interviews with 10 plus journalists in exile and reports by leading press associations in Hong Kong.

HK Police Violence Toward Journalists

From June 2019 until early 2020, millions of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest Beijing’s introduction of a proposed law allowing the extradition of criminal suspects from the city to mainland China.

The Hong Kong Police responded to the protestors with disproportionate and unjustified force, such as, using tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, rubber bullets, and beating people severely with truncheons.

According to the report, of the 222 journalists who responded to a Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) survey on “violence against journalists when covering public order events,” only 28 said they had not been rough handled by police.

One former South China Morning Post (SCMP) photojournalist, a foreign national, told HKW of several occasions in which he was pepper-sprayed and teargassed at close range by the city’s riot police.

“I was in Lockhart Road in Causeway Bay on one occasion with two other photographers, and we saw the police punching a guy and pushing him into a van. I took pictures of the guy being punched, and the riot police turned around and sprayed a gel at me, which went over every part of my body. My camera was dripping with this gel. And then it started to burn. My whole body was burning,” he told HKW.

“The hatred that the police showed against the media was shocking,” the journalist added while describing a different incident of being deliberately targeted by the Hong Kong police with teargas spray.

In another interview, a reporter for Ming Pao at the time, Matthew Leung, told HKW he was shot at least four times with pepper balls and was arrested on one occasion while covering the protests on the frontlines.

Rising Censorship of the HK Government

Stephen Vines, a distinguished British journalist at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the public broadcasting service in Hong Kong, told HKW that a new director was installed at RTHK following a government review of the broadcaster in February 2021.

The review said there were “deficiencies” in RTHK’s management structure and subsequently announced that the  director of broadcasting needed to be replaced.

That director, an experienced journalist named Leung Ka-wing, was replaced by Patrick Li, a civil servant who had previously served in various government departments.

“The atmosphere changed overnight. Patrick Li issued directives by messaging. We would simply be told that ‘the Director has decided this,’ with no consultation. We were told every proposal for a theme, a story, [and] a program had to be approved by the management. There were so many redlines, but they were never spelled out,” Vines told the HKW.

In another interview with HKW, Chris Wong, a former news presenter at TVB, a Hong Kong-based television broadcasting company, illustrated his personal account of some of the most extreme forms of censorship by the broadcaster.

In November 2019, pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu was attacked in the Quarry Bay area of Hong Kong, and during the scuffle his ear was bitten off. Although the photographs and footage clearly show the incident, Wong was asked to report it differently by the broadcaster.

“The script that the editor provided said that Mr. Chiu’s ear fell off naturally, somehow. Nobody did anything, it was not a bite, and the ear just fell to the floor. The editors did not want to cover violence by pro-Beijing ‘blue’ supporters,” Wong told the HKW.

He also pointed out that in the coverage of the protests, TVB focused extensively on violence by some protesters but “never covered the protestors’ press conferences.” Meanwhile, it broadcast all police and government press conferences in full.

“Protestors wearing black shirts could only be identified as “black shirts” people, not as protestors. We were told ‘do not say protestors,’” Wong added.

The International Community

Benedict Rogers, the co-founder and Chief Executive of HKW and the report’s author, said that the CCP has destroyed nearly all media freedom in Hong Kong, a city that was once the beacon of press freedom in Asia. He called on the international community to take action and demand that the CCP and the Hong Kong Government uphold the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Basic Law.

Meanwhile, Rogers urges the international community, including all relevant bodies at the United Nations (UN), to speak out “to protect those journalists in Hong Kong who continue to try [to do their job] and seek the release of [the journalists] in prison or facing prosecution.”

Rogers also suggested that the international community should consider actions, such as sanctioning senior Hong Kong officials who own property in the UK or who have a role in suppressing Hong Kong’s freedom.

“The international community must not allow those responsible for these violations to get away with impunity and without consequence,” Rogers said.

Danny Tang