The press in Hong Kong and Taiwan is under unrelenting pressure from local and Chinese governments, oligarchic owners and thugs employed to beat up reporters and editors, according to an exhaustive 4,500-word report released today by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The picture the report paints is one of slow but relentless erosion of what has long been regarded as not only the freest and most diversified press in Asia outside Japan but what has traditionally been the most important listening post on China itself. That is critical today with the Chinese government cracking down on the New York Times and Bloomberg for reporting critically on the vast riches amassed by members of the families of China’s top leadership. A long period in which western reporters could roam relatively freely in China and report critically appears to be coming to an end, renewing the importance of Hong Kong as a window into the mainland.
But, the CPJ report says, more than half of Hong Kong’s media owners have accepted appointments to the main political assemblies of China and are being absorbed into China’s political elite. They include Charles Ho of the Sing Tao news group, Richard Li of Now TV and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and Peter Woo of i-Cable television. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, many media owners have close business ties to Beijing, which they are loath to jeopardize by drawing disfavor on the mainland. An attempt to take over Next Media gadfly Jimmy Lai’s Taiwanese media interests was barely thwarted last year.
While in the past Beijing relied on discreet ways to carry messages to Hong Kong media owners, such as asking middlemen to speak with newspaper editors, today they are contacting editors and journalists directly, the CPJ says, with the propaganda chief of China’s representative agency calling to complain about critical coverage of Chief Executive candidate CY Leung during last year’s elections. Three reporters at the Journal told CPJ that since the Liaison Office’s phone call, they were ordered to write fewer critical reports about Hong Kong’s leader and to back up any negative statements about Leung or his government—even in opinion pieces—with substantive supporting evidence.
Next Media publisher Jimmy Lai’s publications have endured a boycott by China-based advertisers since 2003. Next publishes the critical, widely circulated Chinese-language Apple Daily as well as newsmagazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In broadcast, meanwhile, Beijing exerts an even stronger influence because the high cost of news operations is prohibitive to independent media. The government also tightly controls broadcast licenses, and can reject applications without providing a reason.
A journalist at Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB), which was until recently one of only two free-to-air television broadcasters in Hong Kong, told CPJ that it is difficult for staff to challenge signs that the station’s managers voluntarily censor coverage. Nowhere have issues of self-censorship been more pointed than at the South China Morning Post, which has had a series of chief editors since Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation sold it to Chinese-Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok in 1993, and which in 2006 lost the English-language competition, The Standard, which used to hold its feet to the fire before it cut back to becoming a free paper and a throwaway.
One of Asia’s richest tycoons, Kuok was selected as one of Beijing’s advisers on Hong Kong’s future in the run-up to the 1997 handover. He has been accused by Hong Kong media commentators of being pro-establishment and of forcing the departures of a string of Post editors and reporters critical of Beijing. Under Wang Xiangwei, who was appointed in January 2012 and is the first mainland-born chief editor, the newspaper has again courted controversy, accused of playing down the story of the death of a Chinese dissident. In an emailed response to staff concerns, he denied downplaying the story.
Paul Mooney, an award-winning, Beijing-based contributor to the Post for 20 years, said, “The problem is that people on the outside can’t tell what’s being censored on the inside,” he told CPJ: “What outsiders can’t see is what is being ignored, spiked or rewritten in order to play down” critical stories. Mooney built his career on investigative and human rights reporting but during the last nine months of his employment, he had only two news stories in the newspaper, and one of them was about pandas. The Post discontinued his employment contract in May 2012 and he subsequently was denied a visa to report from China for his new employer, Reuters.
Meanwhile, the HKJA has recorded several violent attacks on journalists, which were once rare in Hong Kong. One attack targeted Next Media on June 30, 2013, when three masked men threatened distribution workers with knives and burned 26,000 copies of Apple Daily, according to news reports. Earlier the same month, in an attack relating to another media company, iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping was beaten by a group of unidentified baton-wielding men. The Hong Kong-based magazine is known for outspoken reporting on sensitive mainland issues. The attacks came against a backdrop of restrictive legal measures. The Hong Kong government has proposed or passed laws that threaten to undermine the nuts and bolts of newsgathering—and has failed to pass laws that would broaden public access to information, the report notes.
Journalists have long called for a freedom of information law and an archiving of information law. Hong Kong does have access rules, but because the government is not required to keep old records and can refuse to disclose any information it deems sensitive, the rules are meaningless. Government officials can simply tell journalists that records have been destroyed or that certain information cannot be disclosed, without providing a reason, she said. Provisions of the city’s privacy law that went into effect in April 2013 could subject journalists to five years in jail or fines up to HK$1 million (US$129,000) if they reveal information that “causes psychological harm” or “causes loss.” The law also gives targets of investigative reporting the right to “request to access personal data” collected by journalists. Journalists may mount a defense that they “reasonably believe” they are reporting in the public interest, but that aspect of the law is vague and undefined.
In Taiwan, journalists say they experience pressure from China in ways both similar and different than their Hong Kong colleagues. Most reporters CPJ interviewed in Taiwan also requested anonymity because of concerns over job security. As in Hong Kong, most Taiwanese media are backed by individuals who own an array of businesses. News outlets in Taiwan have long been divided along clear political lines. Some are in open support of the Kuomintang (KMT), which favors greater integration with China. Others back the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is staunchly pro-independence. Michael Cole, deputy news editor of the Taipei Times, a pro-independence English- language newspaper, told CPJ: “As a rule of thumb, news media that stay away from criticizing China will attract more advertisement revenue. Over time, this can gradually elbow out news organizations that are critical of China.”
A reporter at the China Post, another English-language newspaper, told CPJ, “Many of my [fellow journalists] complain that their bosses would often receive calls from higher ranking Taiwanese government officials, persuading them not to write or print something.” Journalists are also concerned about growing investment in Taiwan media coming from Hong Kong. The city is exempt from regulations barring China from investing in local media. The onus falls on Taiwan’s regulators to monitor investments and news products coming from Hong Kong and elsewhere to ensure there are no mainland China influences.
“Whether or not the regulators are successfully doing this is highly questionable,” said Cole of the Taipei Times. “The government in Taiwan conveniently looks the other way when influential individuals engage in dealings with China. There have been many confirmed cases of a newspaper accepting cash from Beijing to run disguised advertising and one-sided articles in favor of China. And although regulators caught on, asking a multibillionaire media owner to pay a fine isn’t exactly an effective means of deterrence.”
Cole was referring to tycoon Tsai Eng-meng, who purchased the China Times Group, a Taiwanese media conglomerate, in 2008. Tsai made his fortune selling snack foods and beverages, operating more than 100 manufacturing plants in China. Forbes listed him as Taiwan’s richest man in 2013. The group’s flagship newspaper, the China Times, has been repeatedly fined by regulators for disguising advertising purchased by Beijing as news reports, and is regularly criticized for one-sided reporting in favor of China.
The problem of “embedded marketing” came to public attention in late 2010 when veteran China Times reporter Dennis Huang resigned in protest, leading to a public campaign to end the practice. The China Times was again hit with controversy in 2012 when an undercover investigation by the Association of Taiwan Journalists discovered that the paper had been paid by a press officer in China to cover a visit by Su Shulin, governor of Fujian Province, according to strict guidelines laid down by the mainland.
Early in 2013, Tsai made moves to take control of the country’s largest newspaper, Next Media’s Apple Daily. More than 100,000 protesters rallied to oppose the purchase, and popular outrage effectively derailed the plan. But Tsai continues to expand his media empire. In July 2012, after an 18-month deliberation, regulators gave approval for his company, Want Wan Holdings, to purchase the cable-television operator China Network Systems, one of Taiwan’s largest cable television providers. Critics expressed alarm at the decision. The Taipei Times wrote in a February 2013 editorial that the purchase has “effectively granted control over about one-third of the nation’s media market, including 23 percent of all cable subscribers,” to Tsai.
Given Beijing’s goal of unification with Taiwan, many commentators have argued that Beijing has upheld the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong in part to demonstrate to Taiwan that it would enjoy a level of freedom upon unification. With the mainstream media increasingly compromised, some journalists in Hong Kong and Taiwan are pinning hope on the development of independent online news outlets. Unlike on the mainland, government censors do not control expression on the Internet in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Lin Yuting, a former reporter at Taiwan’s China Post, said that before he left the newspaper in 2012, he saw more influence in the form of advertorials by Chinese companies and a weekly lifestyle insert provided by mainland Chinese media.
“At the same time, I’ve seen a refreshing growth of online forums and activism websites in Taiwan,” he told CPJ. Willy Lam, now a professor and former South China Morning Post China editor, agrees that online media can provide an alternative to mainstream media organizations, which are bound to become more heavily censored. “Beijing must be quite happy. At this point in Hong Kong at least, Beijing has already gotten what they wanted. All the mainstream media are self-censoring. Only Next Media is holding out,” he said.
“But the situation is not that bleak because of the emergence of online media outlets.” In a sign that the public is prepared to pressure the government to improve media freedom in Hong Kong, tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated for weeks in the autumn of 2013, after the government rejected a free-to-air television license for the Hong Kong Television Network. HKTV is a startup that promised to broadcast critical programming. The government’s refusal to provide reasons for the license rejection raised suspicions that the influence of Beijing was behind the decision, the CPJ said.
Protesters waved banners and shared messages over social media, demanding that they wanted “a fair system, not a black box system” or a “monopolistic” system. Others expressed fear that the closed-door licensing process foreshadows what is in store for the city’s future elections. Hong Kong will elect its next leader in 2017
in what Beijing had promised would be the first election conducted by universal suffrage, in which each citizen will have a vote. But already Beijing has ruled out open nominations for chief executive candidates, meaning the candidates will be selected instead by a committee stacked with Beijing supporters.
“Tensions will continue to build up, and it is critical that journalism in Hong Kong remains robust in the run-up to the 2017 election—and international media needs to pay close attention, too,” said Sham Yee-lan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “Otherwise, how can the public know what they’re up against?”