Further Declines in Press Freedom for Hong Kong and China on World Press Freedom Day

To commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released their annual World Press Freedom Index. It was no joyous occasion for China and Hong Kong, both of which registered among the lowest categories in the rankings. The index, along with other recent media and government reports, demonstrates the dismal state of press freedom in greater China. In Global Voices, Oiwan Lam described the precipitous deterioration of press freedom in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has registered the steepest fall in an international Press Freedom Index ever this year. The city was ranked 80th last year and dropped 68 places to 148th among 180 countries in 2022.

[…] In 2002, Hong Kong was ranked 18th — making it a beacon for free press in the world, especially in Asia — but press freedom has eroded significantly. In 2021, after the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL), it dropped to 80th, and it further slipped to 148th this year as the city’s security police forced two major independent news outlets, Apple Daily and Stand News, to shut down.

[…] Hong Kong’s ranking has been dragged down by both legislative and security indicators, as shown in RSF ‘s region-based report. The international watchdog describes the NSL as: “A pretext to gag independent voices in the name of the fight against ‘terrorism’, ‘secession’, ‘subversion’, and ‘collusion with foreign forces.’” [Source]

Cedric Alviani, head of RSF’s Taiwan-based East Asia bureau, told AFP: “It is the biggest downfall of the year, but it is fully deserved due to the consistent attacks on freedom of the press and the slow disappearance of the rule of law in Hong Kong.” The Hong Kong Free Press compiled a detailed month-by-month timeline of declining press freedom in Hong Kong since the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020. In a symbol of the increasingly inhospitable media landscape, an unofficial Twitter account of public broadcaster RTHK announced on World Press Freedom Day that it would soon shut down and delete all of its previous tweets. The account, which had attracted thousands of followers, had been maintained by a fan after the official RTHK Twitter account abruptly deleted all of its tweets last August. 

Erin Hale from Al Jazeera described how Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam defiantly praised the city’s level of press freedom and offered her own alternative metric:

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that Hong Kong’s press freedom was “as vibrant as ever” citing the large number of regional and international institutions operating in Hong Kong alongside local media.

“This is by itself a very good indication of the vibrancy of press freedom in Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters. “But as I said on many occasions, particularly with the enactment of the National Security Law, journalists, media organisations, are not above the law.”

[…] Tom Grundy, the founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press, said Lam’s metric was not the best way to measure press freedom.

“The quantity of government-registered news outlets is not an indicator of the quality of Hong Kong’s press freedom,” he told Al Jazeera. “Most outlets in Hong Kong are outright owned by Beijing, owned by Chinese conglomerates or owned by those with business interests in China.” [Source]

According to RSF’s barometer, 18 journalists were imprisoned in Hong Kong in 2021. In China more broadly, there were 50 journalists imprisoned in 2021, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released last December. This number includes Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who was jailed in December 2020 for reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan; Cheng Lei, a CGTN news anchor arrested in August 2020 for “illegally supplying state secrets to foreign forces”; Haze Fan, a Bloomberg news assistant who was forcibly disappeared in December 2020; Huang Xueqin, a #MeToo activist and journalist arrested for “inciting subversion”; and many others detained on vague or unfounded political charges. Asim Kashgarian from VOA noted that 22 of the journalists on CPJ’s list are Uyghurs, but that there are dozens more whose detentions went unrecorded:

Abduweli Ayup, founder of Uyghur Hjelp, a Norway-based organization that documents China’s Uyghur rights violations, said the CPJ’s findings are just “the tip of the iceberg.” His organization found 40 Uyghur journalists who were jailed in China in recent years.

“In our data, there are at least 40 imprisoned Uyghur journalists among over 400 Uyghur intellectuals incarcerated by Chinese authorities,” Ayup told VOA. “If we include Uyghur website bloggers and government radio and TV hosts to our list, the number of jailed Uyghur journalists is at least over a hundred.”

Ayup said that the 22 imprisoned Uyghur journalists in CPJ’s report are only the ones confirmed by media. [Source]

Inspired to comment on World Press Freedom Day, Matthias Sander, a China tech correspondent for Swiss daily NZZ, offered a detailed account of the incessant surveillance he encountered while on a recent holiday in Guizhou: 

The U.S. government also weighed in on China’s lack of press freedom. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called China the biggest threat to press freedom, citing the imprisonment of Chinese journalists. He stated that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the increase in “surveillance, harassment, intimidation, [and] censorship” of Chinese journalists. The U.S. Congress also introduced two resolutions on press freedom, one of which criticizes China as “one of the worst media environments in the world.” In the 2022 RSF index, China ranked 175 out of 180 countries.

There is little incentive for Chinese journalists to deviate from the government line. China Media Bulletin described a recent report by a Chinese government think tank that equates the success of digital media with the extent to which it advances the agenda of the CCP

Late last month, the State Information Center, a policy think-tank under the Chinese government, released its 2021 China Online Media Development Report (中国网络媒体发展报告). Pitched as a broad overview of developments in the country’s online media industry, the report assesses 20 major online media platforms, including both state-owned media websites and private internet platforms.

[…] But the rankings in the SIC report, and the case studies cited in online media development, make clear that the report’s primary concern is to chart the effectiveness of online platforms in serving the news and information agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As such, the report offers an interesting glimpse into CCP thinking on both the transformation of Party-led media and the operationalizing of private online platforms in the digital era.

[…] After opening with an emphasis on the leadership of CCP with comrade Xi Jinping as the “core,” the report’s preface says that “online media steadily increased positive propaganda and educational leadership” in 2021. Betraying the clear linkage in the report between CCP agendas and success metrics, the preface notes that “online media steadily enriched broadcast methods and content surrounding the national glories of the centennial of the CCP.” [Source]

Despite the shrinking space for Chinese press freedom, there were some optimistic conclusions to the day. Taiwan managed to maintain its “satisfactory” ranking and even jumped up five positions to number 38 in the RSF index, although Cedric Alviani cautioned that the change was more a result of the new methodology and noted the “toxic” working environment for some journalists. The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy also celebrated World Press Freedom Day by holding a panel discussion on the role of media in advancing Tibetan democracy and ways to empower Tibetan journalists. Finally, in an op-ed for the Hong Kong Free Press, Hong Kong journalist Yuen Chan argued that the fight for the city’s press freedom has not been in vain, and that “there will be journalism as long as there are journalists”:

Despite the death notices, despite the closures, the arrests, the smears, the sad and reluctant departure of their peers, there are journalists who simply continue to do their jobs. They are striving to map the contours of the new landscape, an almost impossible task because the sands are constantly shifting. As a journalist at the now defunct Citizen News told me when Apple Daily closed: “There will be journalism as long as there are journalists.”

For most Hong Kong journalists, the notion of what journalism should be – a rigorous process of telling stories and presenting facts, providing context and holding power to account – is unchanged.

Many Hongkongers, I think, share that belief. They have marched to defend press freedom, they opened up their wallets to the independent online media that sprung up when mainstream media succumbed to creeping self-censorship under the strain of political and economic pressure, and they queued up for hours in the dark to buy the last copies of Apple Daily.

The past campaigns were not futile after all. They helped to entrench the idea of press freedom in a city that adopted it as a core value. Hongkongers will not easily forget that the current landscape is not a natural state of affairs.

[…] When big gestures become foolhardy, dangerous or impossible, small acts of solidarity with those quietly toiling at the coalface become more important than ever. [Source]


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.