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Press freedom in Hong Kong

Freedom score for Hong Kong hits seven-year low as Beijing’s ‘ever greater influence’ cited

US human rights NGO says ouster of pro-democracy lawmakers and jail sentences for Occupy protest leaders drove down score in annual report

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 10:21am

Hong Kong’s latest global score for freedom has fallen to a seven-year low of 59 out of 100, according to an annual report by a Washington-based human rights NGO, which blamed the figure on Beijing’s “ever greater influence” on the city’s political affairs.

The Freedom House report for 2018, released on Tuesday, also cited the “expulsion of four pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislature” and “jail sentences against protest leaders” as key contributors to Hong Kong’s score.

Last July, a local court stripped four opposition lawmakers – Lau Siu-lai, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Edward Yiu Chung-yim – of their seats in the legislature for improper oath-taking.

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Last August, the government launched a successful bid for harsher punishment for three young Occupy movement leaders, including Joshua Wong Chi-fung, in an appeal case that overturned the previous, more lenient sentences of a lower court.

The report covered 209 countries and territories, with its results derived from assessing 25 indicators of how much political and civil rights, as well as freedoms individuals in a place were enjoying.

The city ranked 111 overall, and the report gave Hong Kong a score of 59 this year, placing it on par with Fiji. That was one point behind Ecuador and Burkina Faso. The highest possible mark is 100.

Hong Kong’s score this year was down from 61 in the 2017 report. It was also the lowest since 2012, when overall scores for all places studied were made available.

The city’s tally stood at 67 from 2012 to 2014. It dropped to 65 in 2015 and dipped further to 63 in 2016.

In the categories of political rights and civil liberties, Hong Kong’s scores remained unchanged over the past year at five and two respectively, on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the least free and one being the freest. The city’s press freedom was rated as “partly free”.

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As for its overall freedom rating, Hong Kong scored 3.5, with the city categorised as “partly free”.

Executive councillor Ip Kwok-him, who is also a local deputy to China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, said he was not surprised by the Freedom House findings as “organisations in the West like to look at Hong Kong through tinted glasses”.

Listen to the bitter criticisms against the government ... One can hardly say Hongkongers’ political freedom has been shrinking
Ip Kwok-him, executive councillor

On the court cases cited by the report, Ip said: “The government went through proper procedures to pursue the cases in the higher court, be it the disqualifications or the harsher sentencing. This is our legal system, and we are known for having an independent judiciary. One could not have been able to reach the conclusion, without a great deal of imagination, that it was Beijing orchestrating from behind.

“Just look at the number of anti-government protests we have had since the handover and listen to the bitter criticisms against the government by the opposition politicians. One can hardly say Hongkongers’ political freedom has been shrinking.”

Barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah, also an executive councillor, described the Freedom House report’s citing of the disqualification cases as “most unfortunate and unfair”.

“The disqualification cases happened not because of anything done by the government but because the people involved chose to treat clear legal requirements as having no effect,” he said.

“Freedoms in Hong Kong are alive and well. Just ask anyone here.”

The report said “the Communist Party leadership in Beijing exercised ever-greater influence in Hong Kong as it attempted to stamp out growing public support for local self-determination”. It also highlighted that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee “annexed the national anthem law to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, “effectively compelling the [Hong Kong] legislature to draft a matching measure”.

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It said the expulsion of four pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislature because of their “insincere” oaths of office had made it “easier for pro-government forces to pass major legislation and rule changes”.

As for the rest of the world, the least free country was Syria, with an aggregate score of “minus 1”. China’s score was 14, giving it a ranking of 186, or 24th least free country in the study. Taiwan’s score was 93, placing it the 27th overall.

The three freest countries, each scoring 100, were Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

The United States – described in the report as “the world’s oldest existing democracy” – scored 86. The report said the country was hit by “growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency”.