Hong Kong: 20 years after the handover, the freedom of information in free fall

A generation after the handover of Hong Kong to China, the freedom of information is lowest in the former british colony. If the physical violence against journalists have decreased, not of the media has continued despite the birth of a few titles online, independent but fragile.

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Hong Kong is preparing to celebrate with great pomp the 20th anniversary of its handover to China. On the 1st of July next, symbolic day, which also commemorates the founding of the chinese communist Party, the new chief executive Carrie Lam, elected by a small committee with the support of Beijing, will officially take up his duties. The festivities, which has invited the chinese president Xi Jinping, include a fireworks giant that will draw in the sky the acronym HK and the chinese word “China” … written in simplified characters, the official language on the Mainland, but hong Kong people use little.

Twenty-six journalists representing 10 media in hong kong will not have accreditation to cover these events, just as they had been excluded from the coverage of the elections of the chief executive last march. The reason for this? The administration does not recognize the media broadcast only on the internet. Here are yet five years that the Association of journalists in hong kong (HKJA) requires, in the body and cry for equal treatment, but demand is surprisingly still “under review”.

As for the journalists who were lucky enough to have a accreditation, the message received is clear : the document states that their personal information may be passed to the police and other services in charge of security.

The public press under control

In the Hong Kong in 2017, these two facts are not irrelevant. In 20 years of administration pro-chinese, the former british colony has seen crop, a significant portion of its freedoms, in theory guaranteed by its status of special administrative region. In the world Ranking of press freedom drawn up by Reporters without borders (RSF), Hong Kong has been a giddy plunge : of 18th to the creation of the ranking in 2002, she found this year… 73rd rank. Amnesty International also deplores the worst situation since 20 years in the field of human rights. Freedom of expression and information “with chinese characteristics”, to paraphrase the newspeak of Beijing that hong Kong people have a hard time digesting.

Indeed, what can they expect from traditional media ? More than half of the media executives, who have the most economic interests important in China, are members of political bodies such as the national people’s Congress and the political consultative Conference of the chinese People. If you want to do business on the continent, there is nothing like a good dose of “patriotism”, that is to say of self-censorship. And for those who would not have understood, the communications Authority ensures the grain : the regulatory body is known to put pressure on the media, e.g. through the threat of non-renewal of their license (see the file RSF: hong Kong, the invisible hand of Beijing).

The redemption at the end of 2015 in the English-language newspaper South China Morning Post, by the founder and CEO of the chinese site e-commerce Alibaba.com, Jack Ma, has also drawn a line on the last hopes to see this institution, born in 1903, to exercise any role of counter-power. At the beginning of the year 2016, close to thirty employees, including all of the editorial team international, had left the everyday, to be immediately replaced by personalities deemed compliant or close to Beijing.

Violence is a strategy of choking

Fortunately, physical attacks against the press have declined over the past two years, with the notable exception of the attack in February 2016, a journalist of the daily newspaper Min Pao by police officers while covering the riots in Mongkok. More than a year after, justice seems to be in no rush to shed light on this matter.

The violence had peaked in 2014, the year of the ” revolution of umbrellas “, which had seen tens of thousands of demonstrators demand more democracy during a sit-in over two months. The 79th day, the police had dispersed the crowd with blows of tear-gas grenades, injuring numerous others including several journalists covering the events.

The year 2014 began with a violent attack with a knife perpetrated against Kevin Lau, a journalist of the daily newspaper Ming Pao. Then she had been punctuated by acts of violence against the press, in particular the group Next Media, which suffered blow on blow a lock of his printing, two attacks, Molotov cocktail, and a cyber attack of great magnitude. But in the end, these spectacular actions had only made that go a little bit more opinion against the executive and against Beijing.

Dismissals and harassment of journalists

Since then, the power seems to favour a strategy that is more discreet choking and harassment of independent voices. On April 20, 2016, the editor-in-chief of the renowned newspaper Mingpao, Keung Kwok-yuen, has been abruptly fired -ostensibly for economic reasons only a few hours after having published the records of “the Panama Papers,” relating to personalities in hong kong. Despite a wave of protests, the journalist was not reinstated. His name is added to the long list of journalists fired for their independence, a practice that has unfortunately become commonplace in Hong Kong.

The chinese businessman Gu Zhuoheng, president of the newspaper chinese-speaking Sing Pao Daily News, however, known for his sympathies pro-Beijing, has also made the cost of its freedom of tone. In 2016, after the publication of a series of editorials critical of the chief executive hong kong, and his connections in China, a man-hunt was launched against him by the chinese police. Accused of financial fraud, he was forced to take refuge abroad. Last February, the journal has also been the victims of a sophisticated cyber attack that has blocked his site for a day.

A new generation of media on the Internet

With the resignation of the traditional media, the public turns to the Internet. In recent years, a handful of independent newspapers have made their appearance on the web in hong kong these past two years. Looking pretty pro despite budgets drawn in chalk, titles such as HK01, The Initium, Post852, Stand News, Hong Kong’s Free Press and the Citizen News came out complete the offer of local info independent, as worn by the veteran inMedia born in 2004.

Stand News, a association’s website launched by entrepreneur Tony Tsoi and funded by donations from readers, has been the first in the series launched in early 2015. A few months ago, its founder was forced to close another site, House News, after having been kidnapped and threatened by the security services during a stay in China.

In the summer of 2015, the English website of the Hong Kong Free Press followed, created by two freelance journalists, after a crowdfunding campaign which had collected four times the amount originally planned. After two years of activities, the site announced 8 500 articles in news published, 500 000 unique visitors and 1 million pages read each month. A hearing is not negligible, in a country of 7.3 million inhabitants, 90% chinese-speaking.

In January of this year, finally, appeared the Citizen News, a news site in chinese, which is also funded by subscription, founded by a dozen veterans of journalism. The group includes Kevin Lau, who has taken advantage of his convalescence to ripen the project, and the famous journalist Daisy Li, winner of the international Award of freedom of the press, 1994 awarded by the Committee to protect journalists (CPJ).

But these new media are fragile. In addition to their exclusion from the coverage of official events, they must cope with the uncertainties of economic models, non-market, and yet little proven, the risk of cyber attacks, and the very great difficulty, or even impossibility, to cover news in mainland China. Not to mention the ongoing risk of a not brutal, on the model of the one suffered by the community of independent publishing in Hong Kong.

The trauma of the removal of the publishers

Because, even if two years have passed, no one has forgotten the abduction, in 2015, five book publishers to scandal on senior chinese leaders. The editors were to be repeated on chinese tv, surrounded by police and forced to confess their “crimes”. Another publisher, Yiu Mantin, had the previous year been sentenced to ten years in prison while he was preparing to publish a book with the evocative title: “Xi Jinping, the godfather of China”.

Now, in Hong Kong, we think twice before publishing revelations about Beijing. As one of the booksellers, Lee Bo, a british citizen, was abducted on the territory of the special administrative region and another, Gui Minhai, Swedish citizen kidnapped in Thailand, is still detained in China.

For hong Kong, these two cases are a permanent reminder of the fact that no passport, and no border, do not put them totally immune to services chinese secrets. A sword of Damocles permanently, knowing that the authoritarian regime in Beijing has, in recent years, erected the abduction and torture of activists of human rights in a real trademark.

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