Self-censorship in media 'worsens'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2009, 12:00am
 

Hong Kong's media has become more reluctant to criticise Beijing and self-censorship has worsened in the past year, the Hong Kong Journalists Association warns.

The association, releasing its annual report yesterday, also expressed concerns over a possible decline in news quality with the sacking of large numbers of experienced media staff amid the economic crisis.

Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting yesterday said the American organisation Freedom House had downgraded Hong Kong's status earlier this year from a 'free' to a 'partly free' region, because of what it said was Beijing's growing influence over Hong Kong media.

Mak also said self-censorship was increasing and media organisations were trying to guess what Beijing liked and disliked. She urged reporters to fight to preserve press freedom in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong news media has long been seen as an important window on China.

But concerns about self-censorship grew recently after some local publications and TV stations were seen as having limited their coverage last month of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which critics believed was to avoid upsetting Beijing.

Only a couple of newspapers significantly covered the anniversary, Mak said. 'Considering the importance of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the extent and depth of coverage was disproportional,' she said. TVB was criticised for not leading with the June 4 candle-light vigil on its evening newscast that day.

And the association report also cited the Esquire magazine case, in which the men's magazine pulled a story from its June issue about how celebrities commemorated the June 4 anniversary.

In its annual report, the association also warned about deteriorating news quality in light of the fact that about 800 media workers had been sacked in the past year. The report highlighted Asia Television, which cut more than 300 jobs in four rounds of layoffs, including 36 news staff in May. It also expressed concerns over pay cuts and sackings at various news organisations as the economy dipped.

'Journalists suffering from shrinking salaries are therefore facing greater work pressure - and more expensive forms of journalism, including investigative and in-depth news reporting, are likely to be cut,' the report said.

'Higher-paid journalists may also face the sack, to be replaced by less experienced journalists. All this means that news quality is likely to be compromised.

Mak said: 'It takes several years of training for a reporter to attain a sharp news sense. If you sack them, it is not easy for you to hire staff of comparable quality.' The association also expressed concern about the passage of a national security law in Macau last year, fearing it would increase pressure on the Hong Kong government to follow suit.

Mak said: '[The Macau way] is to get an outgoing [chief executive] to do the dirty work. We can't help worry that [Hong Kong Chief Executive] Donald Tsang will finish the [Article 23 security] legislation before his term ends in 2012.'

The Hong Kong government tried to introduce an anti-subversion law with implications for free journalism in 2003 but shelved it after half a million people protested against it.

In response to the association's report, a Hong Kong government spokesman said Hong Kong was a free society and enjoyed freedom of expression and freedom of the press. 'The media reports freely in Hong Kong, commenting extensively and liberally on local and external matters, and on government policies, programmes and activities,' he said. The Hong Kong government had a constitutional duty to enact laws to protect national security but there was no immediate plan to do so.

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