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Media watchdog: Hong Kong press freedom under assault by China

By
Thomas Maresca
China has been clamping down on Hong Kong's media freedom, especially during the ongoing protest movement, a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists claims. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
China has been clamping down on Hong Kong's media freedom, especially during the ongoing protest movement, a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists claims. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

HONG KONG, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Violence against journalists, increasing Chinese ownership of media properties, surveillance and other repressive techniques by China leave the future of press freedom in Hong Kong in doubt, a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists claimed.

The report, released Monday, highlights police violence against journalists covering the ongoing pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong as the latest step in a clampdown on the press that has intensified since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013.

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"The repeated police attacks on journalists trying to cover the turmoil, with no apparent consequences for the police, speaks to the broader concern that over the decades, the rise of China's influence in Hong Kong has gradually squeezed the once-freewheeling local press," the report, "One Country, One Censor," stated.

Journalists have been targeted by police with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons during the protests, leading to several reported injuries. In one high-profile instance, an Indonesian journalist was permanently blinded in one eye after being hit by a projectile while covering a demonstration in September.

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The journalist, Veby Mega Indah, has filed a complaint and requested the name of the officer who fired the projectile, but claims the police have been slow-walking the probe.

Even before the protests broke out in June of this year, a growing chill had been sweeping through Hong Kong via concentrated mainland Chinese ownership of media outlets, the CPJ report said.

According to the report, over half of major media properties in Hong Kong have close political ties to the mainland.

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"What's worrisome is when owners are subject to hidden, outside political pressures, or when a concentration of ownership effectively blots out the possibility of independent views," the report said.

While Hong Kong retains legal structures that allow freedom of speech and freedom of the press, independent outlets critical of mainland China have also long complained of a politically motivated squeeze on advertising by big businesses with ties to China.

Jimmy Lai, the outspoken pro-democracy owner of Chinese-language news site Apple Daily, said in the report that since 2014, banks, property companies and airlines have all stopped advertising in his media properties.

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"The very rights of journalists are being taken away," Lai said of China's increasing influence. "We were birds in the forest and now we are being taken into a cage."

The CPJ report documents several other instances of Chinese influence over the Hong Kong media landscape, such as the sudden cancelation of the visa of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet in 2018 after he hosted a talk with an independence activist.

Other accounts cited in the report include disinformation campaigns, surveillance and doxing of journalists' personal information.

"As China ratchets up the pressure on Hong Kong media, it's not clear where or if it will stop," the report concluded.

"One Country, One Censor" also details China's efforts to influence media in Taiwan through commercial pressure and disinformation campaigns, particularly ahead of the January 2020 presidential election between incumbent Tsai Ing-wen and pro-Beijing candidate Han Kuo-yu.

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