Media Control and Self-Censorship in Hong Kong

(Trend Magazine)  Media Control and Self-Censorship in Hong Kong.  By Zhang Tao (张滔).  November 2006. 

[in translation]

The Hong Kong political environment is becoming increasingly more like that of mainland China.  As this has yet to directly affect the personal interests and daily lives of ordinary citizens, most people do not feel strongly about this.  This process is known as "boiling the frog by warming the water": if the water is warmed up gradually, the frog may not feel it; by the time that the frog feels the heat, it won't be able to jump out of the boiling water.  Among the various changes in the political environment, media control and self-censorship are the most worrisome.

The Chinese Communists rose to power through wielding the rifle and the pen.  In Hong Kong, the former is not required yet while the latter depends on media control and self-censorship.  When the media are subjected to control and self-censorship, freedom of press and freedom of speech in Hong Kong will be restricted, suppressed, exploited or even extinct.  By that time, the personal interests and daily lives of the common citizens will be threatened, but it will be too late to resist.

International observers are more sensitive to this.  Last month, Reporters Without Borders announced the new rankings of the degrees of freedom of press around the world.  Hong Kong dropped down from last year's 30th place to 58th place for a drop of 19 places.  It is far lower than South Korea (21st place) and Taiwan (43rd place).  The Hong Kong Journalists Associates made an announcement to ask for attention from the public.

Why is there media control and self-censorship in Hong Kong?

(1) Certain media have been acquired by big businesses.  They are no longer public instruments.  They are now personal properties.  They have very close economic ties with China, which funnels benefits to them.  Some of them also have government backgrounds, even in sensitive departments such as the Ministry of National Security.

(2) The electronic media are allowed to broadcast in mainland China, while magazines and newspapers can be sold in subscription form in mainland China.  This is a very big market.  When the audience is expanded, the advertisements increase.  This is the profit temptation.

(3) Many businesses with intimate relationship with China advertise in some media while boycotting others.  This is a form to enticement and/or threat through commercial interests.

(4) Certain media that are not subject to control and self-censorship are not allowed to send reporters to gather news in mainland China.  This restricts their sources and reporting about mainland China.

(5)  Some reporters are suppressed, arrested and imprisoned.  The most obvious example is Strait Times reporter Ching Cheong who was sentenced to five years in prison in a closed trial for "leaking state secrets."

(6) Apart from tempting media bosses with money, senior editorial staff are also lured with high salaries.  In the annual report from a certain media company, certain people were making HK$5 million, HK$3 million, etc per year.  These high-salaried people used to work at other media organizations that were more open and professionally ethical but they are now completely altered.  This particular media company is not doing great business, and may even be losing money.  How can it afford to be so generous?

(7) Certain news workers with leftist background left their former leftist organizations and went to assume high positions at certain seemingly neutral media organizations with control of the editorial direction.  According to the media bosses, these people are good for improving relationships with mainland China because they know how to read the intentions of China.

(8) In the past, the frontline reporters had the ideals and purity of young people and they were not subjected to control and self-censorship.  But now they are controlled by their editors and managers.  The reports that they write are often revised and distorted.  Within the past couple of years, people sent in by mainland China have also infiltrated the ranks of the frontline workers.

How do media control and self-censorship manifest themselves?  Since Hong Kong has an open media market, any media organization which is too obvious about control and self-censorship will rejected by the public.  That would be bad for profits as well as losing the interest of mainland China.  Therefore, they used many different methods to deal with their targeted audiences.

(1) Make up facts in order to smear certain specially designated people.  The most prominent case is when Ching Cheong was arrested, there was a rumor that he took money from Taiwan and had a mistress in Shenzhen (with name provided).  Later on, that woman came to Hong Kong and wanted to sue the media organization, which had to settle out of court and offer a public apology.  As another example, it was rumored that legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung paid people to go to demonstrate; for example; each  participant at the 2003 July 1st march could receive HK$500.  How do you distribute money at a 500,000-person march?  That was a poorly done effort at rumor mongering.

(2) Refuse to report about certain incidents or persons.  The most obvious example is that all FLG news are censored.  All related marches, assemblies and conferences never show up on radio, television and newspapers.  Most recently, there is the story of extracting body organs from living persons for profit.  This story caused a storm internationally, but the Hong Kong media did not mention it at all.

(3) Negative news from mainland China are ignored or minimized so that people won't pay attention.  Recently there have been many examples of people defending their rights on mainland China.  This is a noteworthy social trend, but the media do not carry the relevant reports.

(4) Critical comments that are actually helpful to either the central government and the Hong Kong SAR government.  In order to deceive the public, they sometimes have to run some critical comments in order to show that they are neutral.  At the same time, they praise the central government and the SAR government to win support from the people and make things look good.

(5) Making something out of nothing and exaggerating in order to smear the pan-democrats and destroy their reputation.  They only report one side of the story when it comes to the rifts within the Democratic Party.  The mainstream faction is smeared and it created negative impact on the reputation of the Democratic Party.

(6) Let certain leftists take over editorial/opinion columns.  Even though these people don't write well and the readers don't like them, they keep publishing.  Some of the articles are in fact directly supplied by the China Liaison Office.  Other writers not under control and self-censorship are gradually phased out.  For cover, those are not replaced by leftists.  Instead, they are replaced by writers who give their trivial sentiments.

(7) The truth about "public trust."  Certain media boast about their "public trust."  When their "public trust" is examined carefully, they are at most not guilty of fabricating rumors but they are not reporting certain information that should be reported in a fair way.  This deprives the public of their right to know what they ought to know.  What kind of "public trust" is this?

Due to the presence of a free market, media control and self-censorship in Hong Kong have not reached a stage where there is no more freedom of press and speech.  But the situation is deteriorating until the day when everything goes dark because there is no more free competition among media and the audience has become too numbed to care about the degree to which their media are controlled.

As telecommunication technology becomes more developed, the Internet and SMS have begin to have influence in some places.  Hong Kong is very much behind on this and needs to catch up quickly in order to counterbalance the control and self-censorship in media.  The SAR government does not want to open up the public airwaves.  Recently, not only did the SAR government refuse to grant a license to Citizen Radio, but it has increased the suppression and prosecution against it because they are afraid that the media control and self-censorship will be broken.  The Hong Kong people should support Citizen Radio in great numbers!