Steve Vines: The future of press freedom in Hong Kong
How many of us in the often dubious occupation of journalism are qualified “to continue the red line”, not to mention the ability to “adhere to good innovation?” Yet these requirements for journalists were spelled out in a Nov. 6 letter from the Communist Party’s general secretary to mark the 90th anniversary of the Xinhua News Agency.
There was more to this message, including the need for journalists to follow party leadership and “grasp the right political direction”. We are also urged to “accelerate integration and development”.
This missive does not represent a new reflection on how members of the media are expected to conduct their business, as these principles were first stated in 2016. In 2019, the party’s central committee was briefed by the general secretary that “the trend and law of media integration and development must be fully grasped.”
We had naively thought that talking about integration did not apply to Hong Kong but, like so many illusions, it seems increasingly irrelevant with the relentless desire to ensure that the concept of “one country, two systems” focuses on a single system.
In case of doubt, the reality of this integration was specified in a document of 90 barely literate pages, plus two voluminous annexes, issued by the new bosses of RTHK in September. Its content is a classic example of doublespeak that will be familiar to all students of authoritarian governments. Thus, every mention of concepts such as editorial independence and autonomy is quickly qualified by the liberal use of the word “responsibility”.
RTHK Editorial Guidelines by HKFP
As the document makes clear, “responsibility” is defined by the political bosses. The word “credibility” also comes up, but again it is qualified to make it clear that there is a good and a bad type of credibility. In other words, impartiality, credibility and loyalty, hallmarks of a journalist’s responsibility, are reversed to mean something other than the common understanding of these terms.
Unfortunately I am aware of this as a host of RTHK The pulse Current affairs television program. It became clear that the word “balance” meant that no one could be interviewed expressing an opposition viewpoint without a pro-government person also being interviewed. As regime apologists routinely refused to appear alongside opposition figures, this effectively meant they could not be interviewed. However, if one of the apologists agreed to be interviewed without any opposing voices, the balance was apparently struck.
The only difference between the situation at the new and improved RTHK and that prevailing in the mainland media is that on the other side of the border, no pretense is made to make the voices of the opposition heard.
RTHK is only a part of Hong Kong media, although it is very large and an organization that is directly under government control. As such, it provides a useful indicator of how the new system is working. Yet the rest of mainstream media, regardless of ownership, is also now under tight control.
Apart from the media directly controlled by the government and by the Communist Party’s propaganda service (the state broadcaster and newspapers such as Wen Wei Po and China Daily), the supposedly independent owners of other media companies are subject to constant pressure to prove their loyalty to the “red blood line”. In some cases, with the Sing Tao Group being a notable example, the thirst for party acceptance means their outlets go further to curry favor with Beijing.
It has been argued that remnants of independent mainstream media still survive. There is a modicum of merit in this argument. The South China Morning Post, owned by Communist Party member Jack Ma, is something of a weathervane here as it offers glimmers of independence. But Mr. Ma is very much out of favor these days and rumors abound of the newspaper’s ownership transferring to safer hands and seems to have some credibility.
But what about major foreign media outlets that use Hong Kong as a base? The place’s great tradition as a vibrant international media center has suffered severe blows, which have already diminished the SAR’s credibility as a safe home for the world’s press.
And the worrying signs continue unabated. Earlier this month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry launched a blistering attack on the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong for having the audacity to ask its members about their experience with press freedom. Predictably, the result was depressing, but it nonetheless captured the mood among foreign media based here.
In response, the government accused the club of “interference” and reminded journalists that there was no absolute freedom of the press. It was a slap in the face and clearly designed to indicate that if the international media wanted to continue their operations in SAR, they would have to do so under new rules.
And yet, the space for freedom of expression in Hong Kong has not yet shrunk to the extent of that prevailing on the mainland. This raises an obvious question that hardly needs elaboration.