World Press Freedom Day was celebrated on May 3. That same day, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the international non-governmental organization, released its 2022 World Press Freedom Index showing Hong Kong ranked at a record low. It had fallen the furthest of any country from 80th place last year to 148th place today.
RSF’s 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index assesses the state of the press in 180 countries and regions around the world. Hong Kong’s score this year was only 41.64 out of 100, moving it down 68 places and to a ranking lower than the Philippines and Libya.
RSF pointed out that Hong Kong was originally a bastion of press freedom, but the passage of Beijing’s National Security Law in 2020 led to an unprecedented setback. Although Hong Kong law provides for “freedom of speech, press, and publication,” the national security law has been used to suppress independent voices. Because of its vague provisions, any journalist covering Hong Kong issues, whether in Hong Kong or not, can be affected. More than 10 journalists have been detained in the past year in connection with national security cases.
RSF has criticized the Hong Kong government for taking direct orders from Beijing and openly supporting censorship of the press. Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the public broadcaster formerly known for its fearless investigative reporting, is already run by pro-Beijing figures and will not hesitate to censor content that the government does not like. In 2021, two of Hong Kong’s leading independent media outlets, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forced out of business, leaving 860 journalists unemployed. The rest of the independent media are also under political pressure, with some smaller outlets citing legal risks of closure. Most of Hong Kong’s larger media outlets are now controlled by pro-Beijing factions.
RSF noted that journalists working for independent or democratic media in Hong Kong are generally highly regarded by the public, while those working for pro-Beijing media are regarded more negatively.
In terms of safety, RSF says Hong Kong was very safe for journalists until 2014, when reporters of the Umbrella Movement began to be targeted by police and pro-Beijing activists. During the 2019 Hong Kong Protests, journalists were even victims of police violence, and were detained and prosecuted.
Following this year’s release of the RSF press freedom index, the Hong Kong Journalists Association responded that in 2002, they were ranked 18th in the world suggesting the media has suffered tremendously over the years. Among the five indicators of this year’s press freedom index, Hong Kong ranked 151st with the lowest score of 31.78 for “safety,” which reflects the increasing risks faced by journalists.
Press Freedom Day: Several Journalists in Court
On World Press Freedom Day, several journalists went on trial in Hong Kong. A case involving two counts of “fraud” against Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy founder of Next Digital, and its chief executive Wong Wai-Keung was heard in District Court. The two denied the government’s charges of using the Apple Daily building in violation of the lease and attempting to hide it. On that same day, the former editor-in-chief of Stand News, Mr. Lam Siu-tung, who was charged earlier with “conspiracy to publish seditious publications,” was arraigned in court. His lawyer said he intended to plead not guilty.
Apple Daily and Stand News are the most well-known pro-democracy media organizations in Hong Kong. They have endured major raids and asset freezes by the National Security Police and both were shut down last year. Seven of Apple Daily’s top executives were charged with “conspiracy to collude with foreign powers to endanger national security” under the National Security Law and “conspiracy to publish seditious publications” under the Criminal Procedure Ordinance. All seven were denied bail. Two top executives with Stand News were also charged with “conspiracy to publish seditious publications” and have been in police custody since late last year.
In addition to the threat of incrimination, Hong Kong independent media reporters have also faced threats of violence. On April 12, four thugs broke into and destroyed equipment belonging to the New Times printing plant, which prints the Hong Kong Epoch Times newspapers. On May 11, Leung Chun, deputy editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Epoch Times, was assaulted with a stick by a mob outside her home. The police in Hong Kong have yet to prosecute anyone for the crime.
RSF claims the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world, using legislation to restrict its people and isolate them from the rest of the world, especially in Hong Kong.
The drop in Hong Kong’s World Press Freedom Index ranking comes at a time when China is said to be the world’s largest prison for journalists. The RSF criticized the CCP’s global crackdown on the press stating that at least 120 journalists are currently in detention in China.
According to the RSF, China’s major media groups are controlled by the CCP. Its Ministry of Propaganda sends daily editorial guidelines to the media and notices of censorship topics. The government continuously finds new ways to make it difficult for foreign journalists to discover and report the truth.
In the eyes of the Communist regime, the media is merely the mouthpiece of the Party, and independent journalists who dare resist by reporting “sensitive” information are routinely monitored, harassed, detained, and even tortured.