Hong Kong’s press was once rated the most free in Asia. Today, it’s 61st in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, down from 18th in 2002. Free press advocates believe Beijing is trying to muzzle its critics and fear the situation will get worse.
In this half-hour film for 101 East, we look at possible signs of this decline – the increase in self-censorship, the co-option of media owners by central government, and the recent spate of physical attacks on journalists.
Are these fears justified? If so, what can be done to reverse the trend?
By Lynn Lee
We meet Mak Yin Ting on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The atmosphere in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park is electrifying. Activists and politicians are out in force. They’ve erected tents and put up banners. They’re giving out flyers and white flowers. They’re yelling into microphones and loudhailers.
Hong Kong is the only Chinese city where the Tiananmen crackdown can be openly commemorated. Thousands show up for a candlelight vigil each year. Over the past two decades, the memorial has also evolved. While Hong Kongers continue to remember those killed in 1989, the vigil has also become a platform for activists to champion their causes. Most are linked to calls for democracy, transparency and accountability.
For Mak and her group, it’s an opportunity to urge their fellow Hong Kongers to demand that China respect their right to free speech and a free press. At the vigil, they also promote their book – a collection of essays by Hong Kong journalists who were in Beijing 25 years ago.
“It’s called ‘People Will Not Forget’,” Mak says. “Buy a copy. Take it home, so that we will all not forget what happened.”
Mak tells us the book is not available in China.
“It cannot be sold there,” she says.
She and her colleagues have put it online instead.
“Maybe the people in China can cross the great firewall and read about what happened.”
Mak was a young journalist, when she was sent to Beijing in April, 1989, to cover the student protests in Tiananmen Square. She ended up staying in Beijing for months. She remembers the night of the crackdown, watching from her hotel window as people fled and the injured were carried away. She remembers the sound of gunshots. She remembers, especially vividly, the receptionist at her hotel, whom authorities demoted because he dared express sorrow over the violence.
Beijing does not want to remember. But here in Hong Kong, they can. Mak though, is fearful things could change.
“We must defend press freedom,” she repeats several times.
Journalists in Hong Kong aren’t the only people who care about press freedom and free speech. A protest in February drew some 6000 people, who were angry that Kevin Lau, then chief editor of one of Hong Kong’s most respected Chinese language newspapers, had been abruptly sacked.
Days later, Lau was seriously wounded in a savage attack. The violent assault prompted more than 10,000 demonstrators to take to the streets.
While authorities have not confirmed why Lau was attacked, the violence was clearly unacceptable to Hong Kongers.
We saw students and taxi drivers, families with children, celebrities and political figures at the march. Mak was there too, representing the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
“They can’t kill us all!” She yelled again and again.
What happened to Lau is shocking, but even before the incident, there were signs that press freedom was being eroded in Hong Kong. There had been attacks and threats directed at other media practitioners and outlets. There were rumblings that some editors had received calls from Chinese officials suggesting that certain articles be amended. There was talk that some media owners had been co-opted by Beijing.
But not everyone agrees things are bad. Yip Chung Man, an editor at the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper told us that the press in Hong Kong has never been freer. She said the British colonial authorities were far worse than the Chinese are now. The British targeted her paper because of its political stance, she said.
“Now,” she said, “things are fairer.”
To be able to gather and speak up against a massacre Beijing would rather forget is an empowering thing. On the mainland, journalists and activists have had to pay a price for simply holding a private memorial. At the Hong Kong vigil, organisers screened a video featuring the names and photographs of those detained in the run-up to the anniversary. There were many.
Watching the images, I see what it is that so many Hong Kongers are fighting for. They’ve always been able to remember Tiananmen without fear. They’ve always been able to speak their minds. They’ve always had a media landscape that offers up a diverse range of opinions. These are all things Hong Kongers take for granted. It is part of their identity, part of their city’s DNA. Freedoms, not seen elsewhere in China, are enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution. To lose one would signal the possibility of losing more.
Throughout the vigil, Mak tries to remind everyone what’s at stake.
“When we are able to defend press freedom, we will be able to defend our other freedoms too,” she says repeatedly.
Her voice is partly drowned out by the cacophony of noise at the vigil. Everywhere you look, people are making speeches, chanting slogans, singing songs.
It’s loud and at times, overwhelming. But this is the Hong Kong many Hong Kongers value – a noisy, opinionated place, where people aren’t afraid to say what they think.
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