Jake's View

Some myths about self-censorship and threats to press freedom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2015, 2:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 4:46pm

The watchdog [Freedom House] said Beijing's enormous economic power and influence had allowed it to exert "considerable indirect pressure" on the city's media that has led to growing self-censorship.

It said the environment for media freedom had declined further in 2014 as "physical attacks against journalists increased, massive cyberattacks crippled widely read news sites at politically significant moments and businesses withdrew advertising from outlets that were critical of Beijing and supportive of pro-democracy protesters."

SCMP, April 30

It's time to clear the air here. Hong Kong has one of the bitchiest, liveliest media environments I have seen anywhere in the world and belongs in the top 10 in any country ranking for press freedom, not the No 83 it has been assigned by this social concern group. Let's go through these criticisms one by one:

Self-censorship I have never understood quite what this means. It implies that the journalists in question are in fear of an official censor and delete sensitive text in their copy rather than anger the censor with it.

But the closest thing I know of to an official censor restricts his job to keeping the worst pornography out of public cinemas. I am aware of no other restrictions established by the authorities other than those of the laws of libel. Under what self-imposed guidelines do these journalists then censor themselves?

I suppose they may say they are under pressure to restrain themselves from expressing their political views in their copy. But that's all to the better. I don't want their political views. I want them to report accurately on the views of other people who have more formal competence in formulating and expressing such views. Yes, I have made an exception of myself here. Go ahead, dwell on it.

I suspect that what we really have in self-censorship most times is young journalists whose copy was heavily edited and who do not like the experience. Tough luck, kids. Write tighter next time and don't presume too much on your own role.

Physical attacks on journalists Yes, they happen and in the most celebrated recent case, that of the knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to, the police put in a huge effort to find the culprits.

They did not in the end identify the Mr Big who ordered the attack but as Mr Lau said he had no idea why he was attacked or on whose orders, where were the police to start their investigations? They nonetheless worked hard to support freedom of the press in this case.

We need to distinguish here between private criminal incidents in which journalists are victims and official government efforts to silence the press. It is the second of these two which is the big danger to press freedom and the fact that some policemen may also have taken out their Occupy frustrations on a few reporters does not change the truth that the Hong Kong government does not muzzle the media.

Cyberattacks I'm a cyberignoramus but, as I understand it, these attacks originated from across the border, where freedom of the press is not respected. It is a very significant achievement to have as much freedom as we do have here while still under the same sovereign government.

But did Freedom House also reduce the press freedom score of the United States because cyberattacks from North Korea were recently successful there in stopping a mocking portrayal of North Korea's ruling Kim family? Sauce for the Hong Kong goose is sauce for the American gander, I say.

Businesses withdrew advertising There are more guaranteed freedoms in the Basic Law than that of the press alone. Among them is the right of any business to place its advertising where it will. Bite the hand that feeds you and you may not be fed again. It is perfectly in keeping with civil liberties and any journalist does well to keep it in mind.

Memo to the Journalism Association: Will you people please stop encouraging this denigration of press freedom in Hong Kong? You may have to cry "wolf" in earnest some day and you do yourselves no favours by crying it when there is no wolf.