Each year the Hong Kong Journalist Association issues a report on the state of media and civil freedom in Hong Kong. Each year, the report is a little more pessimistic than the previous year.
The 2010 report — “The Vice Tightens: Pressure Grows on Free Expression in Hong Kong” — continues in that depressing pattern.
The report looks at issues where the Hong Kong political and legal establishment are deferring more and more to Beijing or their proxies in Hong Kong.
An issue of direct concern to Hong Kong journalists is the status of government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong.
The government decided RTHK will remain a government department, despite petitions from the public and non-governmental organizations, that it should become an independent public service broadcaster.
The status of RTHK has long been an issue for free-press advocates.
Under its current status as a government department RTHK has limited editorial freedom –although the government said it will issue a charter guaranteeing RTHK full editorial independence.
For many veterans in the battle for RTHK independence, the issuance of a charter is not a victory.
When the Voice of America aired an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar September 21, 2001 the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell intervened to kill the story.
The attempt by the U.S. government to step in and censor a legitimate news story sent chills of fear among supporters of editorial independence for RTHK. VOA has long been known as a fair reporting news organization. Partly because its charter — signed into law by Pres. Ford in 1976 — protects it.
Point One of the charter states, “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” That means no slanting the news to fit a political agenda.
The folks at RTHK got nervous because if the U.S. government could get away with intimidating VOA, what chance did RTHK have against the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.
In the end VOA won and story ran.
RTHK has always faced massive pressure by the Hong Kong government — British or Chinese — to “be more positive.” Since the handover in 1997 pressure on the Chinese language side increased so much that many journalists feared for their jobs unless they tread gently around stories critical of China.
The HKJA also pointed out the government is unwilling to adopt a more open approach towards government information. The report cites an investigation by the Ombudsman that found misunderstandings of the government code on access to information.
The cure, said the HKJA is enactment of a freedom of information law.
Again, this has been an ongoing issue that has involved journalism groups from around the world in support of the HKJA position. In 2002 or 2003 the U.S. SPJ president spoke on RTHK about the importance of freedom of information laws.
The HKJA also noted an increased lack of interest by the Hong Kong government to defend its citizens from harassment in China. Two major incidents last year involved the detention of a journalist and a cameraman in Chengdu on trumped-up drug charges as they tried to report on the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake.
In another case Hong Kong journalists were beaten and detained by local officials in Urumqi. The journalists were covering the ethnic riots in that region.
The Hong Kong government promised to follow up on these cases but nothing concrete emerged.
The HKJA said in its report that the government is not living up to its international commitments – under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to uphold freedom of expression and press freedom.
The Hong Kong government has also been lax in protesting arbitrary rules set up by Beijing to keep out journalists from news organizations, such as Apple Daily.
All in all the past year was another one of concern for supporters of civil liberties and free press in Hong Kong.