Defying the fearful expectations of liberal advocates, Hong Kong’s press has retained a high degree of freedom. Ten years after the handover, however, journalists still fear the worst and self-censorship has emerged as the most widespread problem in Hong Kong’s media.
Only 11.6% of journalists who participated in an annual survey carried out by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said the press is freer now than in 1997 compared to 58.4% that believed it isn’t. Over 70% said self-censorship is the main cause of the lack of press freedom and 29.5% censored themselves in the last year.
"Self-censorship has not started today. It’s just that it is more severe now," said Joseph Chan, chair of the Hong Kong Press Council.
No journalist has been prosecuted in Hong Kong for airing anti-Beijing views. The pressure is much more subtle and generally applied on media organizations while reporters may just tire themselves out.
"If the atmosphere becomes too congested, reporters will perhaps leave," said Francis Moriarty, a reporter for Hong Kong’s public radio station RTHK and one of few foreign journalists still covering daily news in Hong Kong.
He said the pressure can take many forms. For example, regulations call for a certain amount of government advertising, which Beijing can channel to one media outlet or another, guaranteeing revenue or taking it away. The central government also courts favor with media organizations, influences them economically and makes it difficult for those with opposing opinions to report in China.
Moriarty also believes the amount of information available now is far less than 10 years ago. The Hong Kong government is much more closed and reporters now view local information officers as gatekeepers rather than facilitators.
As far as much of the public is concerned, however, self-censorship is a secondary issue to the more pressing problems of inaccuracy and sensationalism. According to the HKJA survey, 20.4% of the public believed inaccuracy is the most pressing issue. Self-censorship was a distant second, identified by 5.9%. Lower professional quality, frivolous news and sensationalism followed.
Of those who had most to fear from a potential post-1997 crackdown, Apple Daily proprietor Jimmy Lai ranks pretty highly. Yet he has been able to continue resisting all financial incentives to censor coverage in a bid to balance out the media outlets that "became mouthpieces" of the authorities.
Lai’s positive attitude and faith in the Basic Law is counter to that of most activists who fully expect the screws to tighten.
"They do punish media for taking a critical stance," said Chan, but "it is up to them to choose… I would expect self-censorship to expand. "If more journalists are silenced it may result in a spiral of silence."