Freedom of speech is one of the basic democratic values. However, citizens must not take it for granted; it has to be appreciated and protected. The first marker that reacts immediately on political oppression is the mass media. It is the first to suffer from repressions as the dominating party wants to use it as a loyal conveyor of the imposed ideology at any rate and by all means. That was the case in Hong Kong. Violation of freedom of the press was a signal of danger for autonomy and democracy for Hong Kong’s people.
The paper will discuss the situation around freedom of expression in Hong Kong. It will analyze the reasons for Hong Kong public protests known as Umbrella Revolution, its impact on the society and consequences for freedom of speech. The paper will also list the most revealing examples of violation of freedom of speech and other public freedoms in order to prove that the media in Hong Kong are suffering a crisis.
Hong Kong is an autonomous part of the People’s Republic of China, a city-state within the Chinese borders with its own government and Constitution. As a former British colony, Hong Kong can boast a developed economy and westernized business values. The principle of Hong Kong’s integration in China is “one country, two systems” provided by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The Joint Declaration promises a high level of autonomy in all affairs except foreign affairs and defense, the rule of law, human rights and guaranties of democratic reforms (Davis, 2015).
Hong Kong has always been proud of being a democracy. It considered itself a democratic place that practices basic freedoms and is independent due to its economic power. International organizations highly estimated freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Until recently, Hong Kong managed to remain autonomous and sustain democracy within authoritarian China. However, China increased its pressure on Hong Kong in order to level it with the rest of the country. It resulted in dramatic degradation of freedom of speech and other basic freedoms. Under an authoritarian regime, freedom of expression suffers from restrictions and censure in the first turn. It happened so in Hong Kong, too. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong the 61st in the world for the press freedom; to compare, it was the 58th in 2013 and the 18th in 2002 (Hong Kong Journalist Association [HKJA], 2014).
According to China Constitution and the Hong Kong Basic Law, Hong Kong has the right to conduct democratic elections of the executive and legislative powers. However, on June 10, 2014, the Chinese government issued a White Paper demanding that candidates for elections in Hong Kong should receive China’s approval. A corresponding resolution of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee followed on August 31, 2014 (Davis, 2015). In early September, Hong Kong students started a civil disobedience action with “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement. The protesters blocked the streets in the government district and in commercial districts (Kaiman, 2014). The use of tear gas by police aroused a wave of public indignation, and the number of protesters increased to tens of thousands. A yellow umbrella became a symbol of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Official Bejing labeled it an “umbrella revolution” to put it in line with other color revolutions. The U.S. media quickly took up the name. It was not a revolution in a strict meaning; the movement did not mean to overturn the government or change the social system. The protesters gathered to protect their autonomy against increasing China’s pressure. The actions of civil disobedience lasted till mid-December 2014, when the police brutally dispersed the demonstration using tear gas, pepper gas and batons.
The Umbrella Revolution became a watershed for the Hong Kong mass media. While freedom of press in Hong Kong was increasingly limited before, the government reaction to the public protests was the introduction of severe censure. Many journalists suffered from choosing a democratic position and objective coverage of the events. In the period of the action, antidemocratic mobsters assaulted 24 journalists. The split between the few democracy-minded media outlets and Beijing-dominated local media deepened. The dissonance between the approaches showed that most Hong Kong citizens choose independent sources of information, and young people prefer digital media (Timmons & Guilford, 2014).
Article 27 of the Hong Kong Basic Law established democratic freedoms of Hong Kong citizens: “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike” (as cited in Timmons & Guilford, 2014). However, these rights were widely violated in 2013-2014.
Independent journalists reported increased oppression in the year before the Umbrella Revolution. They said that the year had been “the darkest for press freedom for several decades, with the media coming under relentless assault from several directions” (HKJA, 2014). Journalists experienced constant pressure to make them conform to the Beijing guidelines. The common tools of pressure were sacking, personnel changes, intimidation, harassment, and attacks on journalists. The government exerted pressure on companies to withdraw advertising from the unwanted media in order to cut off financing.
The poll conducted by HKJA among the public and journalists proved that the atmosphere in the mass media was becoming more and more stifling. Hong Kong journalists ranked their freedom of press at 42 of 100 while common people estimated it at 49.2. Self-censorship was estimated at 6.9 of 10 (“very common”) by journalists and 5.4 by the public. Journalists perceived the rate of pressure from the owners or management as 6.5 of 10, and the public as 6.2. The poll showed that even people outside the business could perceive greater pressure though they did not know all the insider information (HKJA, 2014). According to the semiannual survey of the University of Hong Kong published at the same time, the level of satisfaction with media freedom was the lowest since 1995 (HKJA, 2014).
HKJA (2014) reported about the cases of violence against journalists. The most outrageous act is the attack on Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of Ming Pao. The journalist was almost stabbed to death in the middle of a busy street. Public opinion connects the attack with the journalist activity of Mr. Lau. The police failed to carry out a due investigation, though (HKJA, 2014). A similar case took place on March 19, 2014, when four men attacked the top managers of Hong Kong Morning News Media Group with metal pipes, seriously injuring them. Another victim was the owner of a popular free newspaper (HKJA, 2014). Official Hong Kong press claimed that the attacks on the media bosses were not connected with their professional activity.
Sacking is another common tactics to get rid of freethinking journalists. Mr. Lau was dismissed from his position as a chief editor of Ming Pao in January 2014, two months before the bloody assault. In mid-November 2013, a host at the Commercial Radio was sacked for her open criticism of the government; the Radio was facing problems with renewal of the license (HKJA, 2014). The government undertook staff rotations, dismissal, and new appointments to secure loyalty of the mass media.
The government applies the policy of advertising pressure to encourage friendly publications and discourage unfriendly ones. It proved to be a powerful tool because the mass media, especially electronic sources, depend upon the revenues from advertising; newspapers and magazines depend upon both advertising and the sale of issues. Newspaper articles that investigate dishonest activities of the government-related companies or criticize the government actions or policies get punished. For example, Ming Pao had to suspend the publication of the investigations conducted by Henderson Land for 18 months because it lost millions of dollars in advertising. The Hong Kong Economic Journal faced the same situation after the publication of articles on tobacco control (HKJA, 2014). While earlier Hong Kong corporations enjoyed more independence due to their economic strength, the Chinese government has the levers to exert influence on them and to make them place and withdraw advertisements. For radio and television, licensing is an instrument to stifle freedom. Outspoken TV broadcasters face difficulties in renewing their licenses, and the same problem is with the radio. In 2013, the government did not issue a new license for “one of the most innovative applicants, Hong Kong Television Network (HKJA, 2014).
Internet media did not escape troubles either. The House News website had existed for two years until July 2014, when it was suddenly closed. The way of information delivery turned The House News to one of the most visited websites in Hong Kong; it could boast of 300.000 unique visitors every day. However, its position did not conform to the official guidelines, therefore it was closed. Moreover, the founder of The House News Tony Tsoi feared for his personal freedom (Cummins, 2015).
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As the civil protests unrolled, the government and media management increased pressure on journalists. For instance, the government demanded to give more coverage to anti-Occupy protests. It exerted pressure on the companies that supported the democratic media by advertising (Timmons & Guilford, 2014). Some journalists used their professional skills and insider information to write blogs with objective coverage of the events while officially working for pro-government media. They worked undercover because otherwise they would lose their jobs. During the events, the assaults on journalists became more frequent and violent. Over 20 media workers suffered attacks of anti-Occupy bands.
Pro-democratic journalists received phone calls with threats. Chinese security services called some of them to the mainland for “tea and snack” (Ricking, 2015). Those were dangerous visits because a reporter always had a chance to end up in jail. During the “tea-parties”, security officers tried to convince reporters to write positively about anti-Occupy bands, not to write or to write little or negatively about Occupy movement, and to take pro-Beijing positions.
Apple Daily was one of the few media outlets that dared to provide unbiased, fair and objective coverage of events. In spite of pressure from the government and personal threats, the newspaper aired democratic opinions. In the days of the Umbrella Revolution, it gained the peak of its popularity. “The most-watched non-music YouTube video in Hong Kong in 2014 was Apple Daily’s live coverage of the protests, which racked up 3.4 million views – equivalent to about a half of the city’s population” (Timmons & Guilford, 2014). Pro-government thugs attacked the owner of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, by throwing rotten pig organs at him. Anti-Occupy mob blocked the delivery of the newspaper. In December 2014, the police arrested Mr. Lai in the course of dispersal of the main site of protesters. After that, he was forced to abandon his position as a chief editor of the tabloid. Mark Simon, a commercial director of the parent company of Apple Today, had to send his family to the USA because of the permanent shadowing and photographing. Government-paid hackers many times attempted to destroy the website of Apple Today through DDOS attacks.
Another newspaper that also supported democratic movement was The South China Morning Post, one of the most respected media outlets in Asia. Before the wave of protests, democratic activists often reproached the SCMP for holding a pro-Beijing position. However, during the civil disobedience period, the paper offered a “comprehensive, rigorous, and balanced coverage of the Umbrella Movement” in its live blog (Timmons & Guilford, 2014). The position of the editorial board was more careful, though. The SCMP also profited from covering public protests. As the movement gained momentum, the daily amount of visitors to the SCMP site tripled on some days. The SCMP suffered for its expressed civil position when the government shut down a branch of the newspaper that was published on the mainland in the Chinese language (Timmons & Guilford, 2014).
Intimidation did not miss foreign reporters working in Hong Kong. A German reporter in China Angela Kökritz made an article about street protests in Hong Kong for Die Zeit. As a result, her Chinese assistant was arrested, and Kökritz left for Germany as soon as possible for the fear of her life (Ricking, 2015).
Despite the abundance of the pro-government newspapers and magazines, the population wanted news from independent sources. Newspapers that managed and dared to provide censure-free information became more popular while there was only sparse demand for pro-government papers. The official coverage of Occupy was flat, uncritical and dependent. It showed how little freedom exists in China and how biased the mass media are. Public TV also compromised itself. Misrepresentation of information and censure were a common practice. After TVB, one of the major companies, had censored a video with the scene of brutal police attack on protesters, 57 TVB journalists filed a letter of protest to the management (Timmons & Guilford, 2014).
Another tendency that became a sign to the traditional media was the increasing use of digital media, especially by young people. Digital media are free from government control, they provide instant access to information and give the user a possibility to choose among a wide range of topics and informants. Another advantage of the digital media is the possibility of instant sharing the information. Live blogs that offered information from the spot collected many followers. Even those blogs that had not previously been interested in politics could offer non-censored coverage of the protests.
The democratic upheaval of Hong Kong’s mass media during the 2014 protests did not result in greater press freedom. On the contrary, the policy of suppression of speech freedom continues with a new force. The government increased censorship and closed some influential media outlets.
Intimidation and harassment of journalists is a usual though illegal practice. The owner of Apple Today experienced it in January 2015, when a bomb was thrown at his home. It is a clearly warning sign to Mr. Lai whose democratic principles are well-known (Cummins, 2015).
An independent journalist Tom Grundy started a new project for press freedom. The news project called Hong Kong Free Press is situated on the British platform for security while ownership and freedom of expression are more observed in Britain that in China.
General expectations for the press freedom are grim. China will most likely impose stricter control over the mass media, also in the Internet. However, there are ways to protect the Internet from government attacks due to a strong platform. Probably the future of journalism lies in the Internet, especially if journalists want to reach the youth. In the light of China’s policy regarding Hong Kong, public protests are likely to continue. The people of Hong Kong will not give up their autonomy and democratic principles at free will. 2015 can become the year of struggle for freedom of speech and expression.
The HKJA (2014) suggests that the government should take several steps in order to enforce freedom of the press. First, intimidation and harassment of journalists should stop. The cases of violence should be duly investigated, and the assaulters, including the masterminds, punished. Second, the government should keep its promise to open a free market for television providers in order to create a competitive pluralist atmosphere. Licensure should not be used as a tool for pressure. The latest decision to issue only two licenses if unfair and incorrect. Diversity is a necessary attribute of freedom; therefore, the country should cultivate and respect it. Third, the government should also encourage diversity in radio and television. Renewal of licenses should be a simple and transparent procedure. The government should encourage innovative and creative broadcasters that can contribute to plurality of opinions. Fourth, the government should consider adopting legislation that can guarantee the transparency of information and unimpeded access to government documents.” The legislation should be based on the principles of maximum disclosure, limited and narrowly drawn exemptions and an effective and independent appeal mechanism” (HKJA, 2014). Many countries in the world have such a legislation, but not in the case of Hong Kong. Fifth, it is necessary to prepare a legislative base for protecting freedom of speech. Though Hong Kong’s Constitution contains such a norm, the government fails to observe it in the current situation. The events of the previous year showed that journalists are constantly at risk of losing their jobs for presenting the information that China’s government can perceive as hostile or disloyal. The owner and managers of media outlets should respect the journalist right for own or alternative opinion.
Freedom of speech and expression is an extremely painful issue in Hong Kong today. Not so long ago it used to be a harbor of freedom in the authoritarian China. Now, democratic values degrade with every year. China that achieved a considerable economic success is carrying out the policy of restricting the autonomy of Hong Kong and simultaneous restricting basic freedoms. This situation around freedom of speech is unhealthy and threatening. The government uses direct and indirect sources of pressure. The pressure is conveyed through the owners and top managers of the mass media outlets, who demand a pro-Beijing position from journalists, closing independent newspapers, radio broadcasters, and websites, establish licensure policy; financial pressure by means of granting and removing advertising. Personal intimidation, harassment and attacks are frequent and unjustified. Changes in the top management of media outlets, reshuffling of personnel, and sacking are often used to keep journalists under control. The Umbrella Revolution of 2014 did not put an end to these illegal actions. The problems around freedom of speech only increased. Further pressure from the mainland China is likely to result in violent clashes, imprisonment of reporters and activists who dare contradict the Beijing guidelines, and possible establishment of authoritarian rule over Hong Kong.
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