Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Hong Kong journalists: Press freedom is at an all-time low

By Wilfred Chan, CNN
updated 11:08 PM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 6,500 people march in Hong Kong to protest media censorship
  • Rally organizer Shirley Yam says press freedom is at an all-time low
  • Hong Kong publications often suffer consequences for criticizing the government
  • Report: More than half of Hong Kong's media leaders are Chinese political affiliates

Hong Kong (CNN) -- With its tradition of free speech, Hong Kongers have long prided themselves on their strong opinions and loud mouths. But now local journalists say they are being shut up.

On Sunday, 6,500 people massed in downtown Hong Kong to protest what they see as alarming levels of media censorship in the former British colony as it grows closer to Mainland China.

The march comes just over a week after thousands of runners in the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon wore blue ribbons to raise awareness of "deteriorating" press freedoms.

Protest organizer and veteran journalist Shirley Yam said the city's press freedom is the worst she's seen in her 30-year career.

"Headlines were added, complete pages were removed, photos were cancelled, interviews were bought, columnists were sacked," Yam told CNN. "We get calls from senior government officials, we get calls from tycoons, saying 'we don't want to see this in your paper.'"

Self-censor to preserve China access?
Reports: China censored newspaper
Journalists in China stage rare protest

"It's sad and terrifying," she said.

Historically, Hong Kong was known as a "window into China." Prior to the opening of Communist China to the West, Hong Kong was often the only place foreign journalists could report on the mainland.

Even today, the Hong Kong media plays a watchdog role, often breaking stories about corruption, health epidemics, and human rights issues that mainland media shy away from.

Beijing is a "control freak"

But now protesting journalists say they are finding themselves silenced if they dare to question the Chinese Communist Party or Hong Kong's leader C.Y. Leung, who is favored by China's government.

Last month, journalists at Ming Pao -- a newspaper known for its coverage of human rights in China -- were stunned when their editor-in-chief was suddenly replaced by a Malaysian editor.

READ MORE: Why is this cuddly wolf toy a symbol of Hong Kong anti-government protest?

Days later, AM730, a tabloid daily known for its criticism of the government, announced that mainland Chinese firms had simultaneously pulled their advertisements, costing the paper over $1 million a year.

Yet those are just the big examples. Multiple journalists at the protest told CNN they have received calls from the Chinese government's representatives in Hong Kong asking them to remove coverage of certain topics or change their arguments, something they say is happening more and more often.

Hong Kong legislative council member Cyd Ho, who attended the protest, said these examples are reflective of an obsession with loyalty in the Chinese Communist Party.

READ MORE: China 'employs 2 million people to police internet'

"Beijing is a control freak," she told CNN. "It cannot bear to hear any opposition."

According to Ho, some Communist officials fear that critical Hong Kong journalists may be secretly working for the American or British governments.

"This is an unnecessary fear," she said. "The central government is paranoid."

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused CNN's request to comment on these allegations.

Fighting against giants

But some of the censorship may not even be forced at all.

"Suppression sometimes happens not as a the result of a direct order from the Beijing government," said Adrian Chow, a columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Times, who suggests that many journalists voluntarily cozy up to the regime in hopes of receiving favorable treatment.

"They want to show that they are in line with the Beijing government's main melody," said Chow. "I think people who resist are actually a minority."

READ MORE: Censorship protest a test for China

A report released this month by the non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists said that "more than half" of Hong Kong's media owners have accepted appointments to China's main political assemblies.

Beijing is a control freak. It cannot bear to hear any opposition.
Hong Kong legislator Cyd Ho

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's press freedom ratings have fallen precipitously.

French-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 61st worldwide in press freedom in 2014 -- a far cry from its 18th place ranking in 2002, when the rankings were first conducted. And a 2013 opinion survey by the University of Hong Kong found that over half of Hong Kongers believed that the local press engaged in self-censorship.

Protesters fear things may get worse still.

"To be honest, we are not optimistic at all," said Yam. "We're journalists, we don't want to be in the news, we should be covering the news."

"But as journalists, we are used to fighting against giants, and that's what we shall continue to do," she added.

Ho acknowledged the uncertainty.

"Some people say Hong Kong is dying," she said. "But today I witnessed love and support for Hong Kong. I believe that if everybody in the community stays firm on our core values, nobody can corrupt us."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
ADVERTISEMENT