Freedoms are being compromised in Hong Kong, why can’t Carrie Lam just own up to that?

  • Michael Chugani says the Carrie Lam administration should stop pretending that things are the same in Hong Kong
  • Hong Kong has become a city where a journalist is blacklisted as a tourist, and an arts venue needs to second-guess Beijing
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 9:14pm

It doesn’t matter how many times Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor repeats herself. The same goes for her top aides. Saying over and over again Hong Kong is as free as it ever was doesn’t make it true. There is now a tightening noose around our freedom. 

We all know this, even the Beijing loyalists. The only difference is that they choose to remain silent. If our freedom isn’t under attack, why did Japanese reporters feel the need to bombard Lam with questions about it during her recent Tokyo visit?

If we still had the exact same rights as before, would Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung need to reassure a sceptical UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this month? Would Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu have to insist the entry ban on journalist Victor Mallet had nothing to do with press freedom?

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It had everything to do with media freedom. That’s why Japanese journalists grilled Lam. That’s why Cheung had to spin a story in front of the global human rights community. And that’s why Tai Kwun director Timothy Calnin had to second-guess what Beijing would think of the heritage site hosting dissident writer Ma Jian as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

The reasons Calnin gave for cancelling, then uncancelling, plans to host Ma are so ludicrous, I am not even sure he is the right man to head a cultural venue. First, he said he would not allow anyone to use Tai Kwun to promote political interests. Then, he said he accepted Ma’s word that he would not promote his politics.

It’s a literary festival, for goodness’ sake. Writers express views, even political ones. Would Calnin disinvite former United States first lady Michelle Obama for taking a swipe at President Donald Trump in her book, Becoming? I am a lifelong journalist and it insults my intelligence for our leaders to say nothing has changed when much has changed.

The record will show that I always took issue with those who claimed media freedom here was dying. There is a difference between self-censorship and media freedom. Self-censorship is a voluntary act of media owners for political and opportunist reasons, and of reporters second-guessing their bosses. It happens even in Western democracies.

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Media freedom is the right to publish without fear of retribution from the authorities. We still have that freedom but the government has endangered it, first by revoking Mallet’s work visa for moderating a Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk by an independence advocate, then by blacklisting him as a tourist.

In the past year or so, Hong Kong has blacklisted Mallet, barred British human rights activist Benedict Rogers from entering and banned young activists such as Agnes Chow Ting from running for the Legislative Council: developments that, in sum, have made me wake up to the fact that I no longer recognise the city where I was born, raised and now work as a journalist.

I am not judging whether it’s right or wrong for the authorities to tamper with the freedoms we have grown up with. All I am saying is that things are no longer what they were. Wouldn’t it be better for Lam’s credibility if she could admit that Beijing sees Hong Kong through a different lens from that of our former colonial rulers – if she could stop pretending that things are the same?

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The record will also show I’m no China basher. But I have to say that, for the first time as a journalist, I feel a pall over our freedoms. Many Hongkongers have told me the same thing. Hong Kong once took pride in being the jewel in Britain’s crown. President Xi Jinping’s message to a Hong Kong delegation led by Lam this week suggests he wants the city to remain the jewel in China’s crown.

But, for that to happen, Beijing must stop tightening its grip on Hong Kong for fear of demons lurking everywhere to threaten national security. I can fully understand Beijing’s determination to safeguard national security but surely that can be done without strangling Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host