A new National Security Law has deepened already serious concerns about diminishing press freedom and editorial independence in Hong Kong. This follows a challenging time for the news media in reporting prolonged citizen protests amid a major health pandemic.
The National Security Law was unilaterally imposed on Hong Kong by China in June 2020, raising concerns that new sweeping police powers can be used against journalists and news media organisations under the guise of law violations against ‘secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘collusion with foreign forces’. Of particular concern was the broad nature of the definitions, such that giving airtime to a foreign critic of China or interviewing a proponent of Hong Kong independence could be construed as violating the law.
Indeed, soon after the law’s enactment the owner of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, was arrested for alleged collusion and over 100 police officers raided the office of the newspaper. Moreover, some overseas journalists had their visa applications delayed or rejected without explanation. Most notably, the Hong Kong Immigration department rejected the visa application of New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley, who had earlier been expelled from China. This led to the newspaper’s decision to relocate a third of its Hong Kong staff to Seoul, South Korea, as executives cited the uncertain environment posed by the new law.
The policing and on-the-ground reporting of the Anti-Extradition Law protests (2019–20) had earlier exposed tensions between journalists and the authorities. From one side the police chief expressed concerns about suspected ‘fake reporters’ who allegedly obstructed and even attacked the police at protest sites.1 From the other, journalists pointed to instances of being pepper-sprayed and police officers displaying reporters’ ID cards in front of live cameras. The police announced, in September 2020, their revised definition of ‘media representatives’ to encompass only those affiliated with media outlets registered with the Hong Kong government – as well as internationally recognised and ‘reputable’ overseas media. Ostensibly this was to allow frontline police officers to quickly verify the credentials of journalists, but press groups argued that this was de facto accreditation of media professionals by a government entity that unfairly prejudiced against freelancers, student reporters, and emerging online media.2
Some media professionals were not spared from the politically charged and frequently violent nature of the protests. Around 20 staff from the Apple Daily had their personal information revealed on an anti-protest website (a tactic known as doxxing). There were also instances where protesters harassed reporters and camera crews from news outlets perceived to be pro-government.
The impact of Coronavirus exacerbated the already severe economic environment for the news media. The largest pay TV operator i-Cable laid off 40 staff from the news department, which led to further resignations in protest – although the company made a commitment not to make more cuts for two years. Bought by tech giant Alibaba in 2015, the English-language daily South China Morning Post (SCMP) instituted three weeks unpaid leave for all staff and cut the salaries of top management. Faced with declining ad revenue, both the Apple Daily and SCMP introduced paywalls, while popular independent online news outlets such as Citizen News and Stand News rely on donations.
Despite these challenging conditions Hong Kong’s news media continue to attract capital from business interests in China, which held direct control or stakes in nine of the 26 mainstream media outlets in 2017.3 This has increased further following the purchase of Hong Kong’s oldest local Chinese-language paper, Sing Tao Daily, by the daughter of a real-estate tycoon in 2021.
Hong Kong’s only public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) continues to be embroiled in controversies. In one instance the popular satirical show Headliner, which first aired in 1989, was suspended indefinitely after RTHK was reprimanded by the regulatory body because of the show’s negative depiction of the police. The release of a recent government report criticising RTHK’s management in February 20214 and the installation of a new head in March 2021 who had no previous broadcasting experience suggest that the Hong Kong government is taking steps to rein in the editorial independence of the public broadcaster.
While its 80th ranking in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index5 far exceeds China’s 177th rank, this still marks a precipitous decline from its 18th position in 2002.
Michael Chan, Francis Lee, and Hsuan-Ting Chen
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Usage of all types of sources dropped in 2021, probably because the 2020 survey registered unusually high levels of news consumption during the Anti-Extradition Bill protests. The decline in print media usage is particularly striking.
Pay for online news
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
As social protests and the pandemic subsided, the information environment also became less contentious, and fake news and rumours were relatively less frequently shared. This might explain an increase in overall trust in the news as well as trust in ‘the news I use’, ‘news in search’, and ‘social media’.
1 Police Act on 'Fake Reporters', https://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news/section/11/223220/Police-act-on-'fake-reporters'
2 ‘FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) Expresses Solidarity with Press Organisations Following Hong Kong Police Revision of Media Definition Reports’, https://www.fcchk.org/fcc-expresses-solidarity-with-press-organisations-following-hong-kong-police-revision-of-media-definition-reports/
3 Lee, Francis L. F. 2018. ‘Changing Political Economy of the Hong Kong Media’, China Perspectives, 2018/3. https://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/pdf/8009
4 Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, The Governance and Management of Radio Television Hong Kong Review Report (Hong Kong: Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Feb. 2021). https://www.cedb.gov.hk/ccib/en/consultations-and-publications/reports/rthkreview.pdf
5 Erosion of Press Freedom, https://rsf.org/en/hong-kong