The paper discusses democracy and freedom of the press in Hong Kong. It analyses the government’s attitude and activities towards real democracy and the freedom of the press and in particular, how it has contributed to the lack of democracy and freedom of the press and also suggests solutions to these problems. The paper also discusses the development of the new media in Hong Kong and how it has been useful to society particularly the civil society and the democrats.
Hong Kong has a relatively free environment and visitors from across continents in the world come to Hong because of that as well as their respect for the rule of law. Furthermore, Hong Kong gained more rating and value amongst the Asian countries due to the ease of information flow facilitated by the availability of the internet. However, the free flow of information in the mainstream media has been limited by the government’s and pro-Beijing politicians’ invariable attempts to control the media. The media has been under constant threats by government officials as well as by the government to use legislation to curb their reporting. The coming of the internet into Hong Kong has given civil society, the democrats, and the media the power to pressure the government to ensure real democracy in the country.
This paper studies how democratic accountability, as well as the rule of law, have influenced the spirit of media democracy in Hong Kong in recent years. It gives an overview of freedom of expression and in particular press freedom in Hong Kong. Democratic accountability has gone down significantly since the handing over of sovereignty in 1997 (Chan & Francis (b) 156). On the other hand, the rule of law has remained relatively strong and stable (Groenewold & Tang 1 and Ku (c) 121).
The government of Hong Kong does not favor democracy and freedom of the media in the country. The government does all that that is within its power to intimidate the media including the use of legislation, threats, prosecution, and criticism among many others.
Thirteen years since the handing over of the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, among the good things that have happened to the mainstream media is the registration of the journalist association. The Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) has upheld the freedom of expression as provided for in Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, over the years, the freedom of the media in Hong Kong has greatly deteriorated mainly due to self-censorship as well as the government’s continued greater control over the flow of information (Sing 89). According to Ma (a) (949) Hong Kong media has faced numerous pressures since the handover. There have been cases of wrongful prosecution of the media. The media bosses who were co-opted were afraid of losing revenues from advertisements. Moreover, some media houses were taken over by pro-Beijing politicians. These made some media to operate according to the wishes of the government. These brought editorial shift as well as self-censorship since the media had to avoid stories that would antagonize the Hong Kong Special Administration Region. They therefore downplayed negative news on the side of the government and gave the civil society and the democrats less coverage. The press maintained the right of freedom as provided for in the constitution as well as their professional ethics to demand for their freedom; however, the political environment was always intimidating. According to Ma (b) (167) the civil society is also at the risk of being encroached by the government. The civil societies under the ad hoc alliance though not united, has been very effective in coming together to defend civil human rights. In 2003 for example, about forty groups of the civil society under the ad hoc alliance came together to oppose the national security legislation in Article 23 which the Hong Kong government had proposed in December 2002. Many people in Hong Kong had believed that the bill was over-stringent and was meant to enable HKSAR to restrain civil liberties (Lo 74).
In 2002, the government had made proposals to repeal article 23 of the Basic Law (Ku 39). The article seriously curtailed human rights and other sections violated human rights. Among other things, it did not allow the citizens to monitor or criticize the government. The police were no longer going to need an arrest warrant or a search warrant (Lo 74). It gave them the total power. This meant that the mainstream media were no longer going to publish anything against the government since according to the law; anything against the government was against the state. It meant that freedom of expression as well as sedition was going to be seriously limited. Sedition would have been considered stealing of secrets of the state meaning that it would translate into treason. A law made in 2002, provide for the basis if jailing anyone who publish in any way, any information that is deemed to be seditious and may threaten the security of Hong Kong as well as china mainland for 7 years (Ma (a) 951). This could have had a greater effect on the free flow of information. This implied that even political commentary could be interpreted as inciting others so that they may commit treason, subversion or even secession and therefore earning the individual who has made such sentiments a jail term (Wang 41). It is fortunate that the bill was shelved.
Deterioration of the democratic media spirit
In March 2006, the Hong Kong government tabled a bill that would authorize the interception of communication and in August the same year, the bill was passed (Hong Kong Journalists Association 1). This bill drafted in a hurry without consultation with the stakeholders in the media industry. Legalization of the interception of communication implies that it is not possible to print or expose to the public what the government is not in favor of. Besides, the bill does not give sufficient protection to journalists. According to the legislation that was passed, the Court of First Instance judges as well as the higher-ranking law enforcement officers approve interception of communications. The law even becomes more dangerous to the media fraternity as it does not protect confidential journalistic information. This implies that the government can thus trace the sources of journalists’ information using the obtained journalistic information. Journalists are not therefore able to protect confidential sources of their information which is very important for investigating reporting in such instances. Journalists on the other hand can not complain about the intercepted information since reporting to the same government that did the act would be useless. Besides, if they make it public that they are under surveillance; it will only inhibit them from receiving sources of information. The Hong Kong Media is also under threat of revitalization of enactment of Article 23 as those who are friendly to the government as well as the politicians have urged the government to implement the law (Hong Kong Journalists Association 2).
The Public Service Broadcasting is also under the threat of excess control by the government (Hong Kong Journalists Association 2). Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK) is owned by the government and has seven radio channels. The public service broadcaster has been on the wrong arms of the government for criticizing government policies. According to the pro-Beijing politicians, the station is supposed to promote government policies. The Chief Executive in Council has the power to determine what the station broadcasts including its television programs broadcasted on the commercial television stations. In 2007, the government set to review the Public Service Broadcasting with a view of making it a station that they could easily control and manipulate. They had aimed at making it a station that would serve as their mouthpiece. The government is also not ready to open up public access radio as well as television stations. Besides, the government may decide to deny an applicant the license of operation of a radio or a television station without a convincing reason.
The mainstream media stations are also worried about the increasing self-censorship that has taken over in Hong Kong (Li, 3). In Hong Kong, most of the media owners are either politicians or are friends to powerful people in the government. This means that they themselves do not allow their media houses to publish anything against the government or an issue that the Central Chinese government might consider sensitive. Other than the internal pressure in the media houses, the Chinese officials also give journalists open verbal warnings that particular areas are forbidden for any independent news reporting. The government is also a victim unlawful jailing of news reporters as it happened for Ching Cheong in 2006 (Hong Kong Journalists Association 3). Such acts have created chilling effects on the media coverage in Hong Kong. Although the Hong Kong Journalist Association has complained to the government to stop the Chinese officials from putting pressure on them, the government has so far not responded considering the continued activities of the officials. The government has also been practising leaking of information so as to co-opt media and to also deny access to information to other media stations which are more critical. Briefings are commonly used by the government since 2005 when Donald Tsang became the Chief Executive of the council.
Solutions to media freedom
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) should take measures to check media personnel harassment by the China officials and ensure that the media has the freedom to operate independently and that they are also liberated from government interventions. Hong Kong would achieve better media democracy if the HKSAR sticks to the spirit of Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. HKSAR should review the sections of the legislation that interfere with confidential journalistic information so that the sources of information can be protected and the malpractices in the government can be reported by whistleblowers.
The fear among the media would also be eliminated if the HKSAR could assure the media that they are postponing the enactment of Article 23 until such a time when all the stakeholders will come to a consensus. Article 23 should be discussed and amended to ensure that it provides for respect for human rights in as much as it protects state security. Those offences related to treason and sedition should be liberalized.
The HKSAR should also be pressured to honor their commitment to set up public access channels. Moreover, the RTHK should also be transformed so that the Public Service Broadcaster function genuinely and not being pressured by the government as has been the case.
The rise of new alternative media
The new media is mainly manifested in the internet. It has been used in various aspects including fundraising, for political blogs, Youtube videos for criticizing or supporting as well as online volunteer recruitment among many others (Yeung (a) 8). The internet has encouraged digital democracy and has increased accessibility and network-based communication which empowers individuals to maximize the democratic space in digital communication. E-communication has greatly grown in Hong Kong due to the technological advancements which have been made over the past few years. Its information-technology infrastructure which is considered to be among the best in comparison to other developed countries (Yeung (b) 22). Besides, its educated population is very receptive to new communication technology. They are also capable of accessing mobile networks as well as the internet. In Hong Kong today, Information technology is regarded as a way of life by the public. Internet penetration is more than 69% and is ranked at position nine in the world. Broadband as well as mobile networks have also greatly improved in Hong Kong. It has also been enhanced by the need to embrace technology that would make the country to be at per with other developed nations like the US and also to be able to things their way.
Advantages of new media to the Hong Kong Society
User-autonomous new media has provided an alternative to the traditional media thereby relieving the society of some problems associated with the traditional media as it is very difficult even for the government to control the information flow in the internet. It is used by the Hong Kong society to counter the mainstream media that has often been accused of carrying out self-censorship. The mainstream media has also been increasingly biased when it comes to establishment. Internet radio has surfaced to provide the public with an alternative platform to express their views. Some of the internet radios in Hong Kong include Radio 71, Radio CP among others.
E-politics is clearly emerging in Hong Kong although it has not been fully embraced by most politicians. The progress of political use of the e-media lags way behind as compared to that of the US. The new media is also seen to reduce biases in the political arena as politicians disadvantaged by resources and power have a media to express themselves, campaign, fundraise and even to mobilize citizens and therefore compete more effectively. The use of the internet in politics began in 2003 when politicians as well as political parties posted their websites in the internet. An number of politicians were noted to have posted politically inspired information on websites. These web based posts were found to have had no much differences with e-brochures. The new media has been used to improve election turnouts as well as elections results in Hong Kong. E-mobilization has greatly facilitated election competition in elections in Hong Kong. In the same year, Civic Exchange developed a website which they used to encourage people to vote. The website provided information, platform for forums, polls as well as commentaries. It was the most successful use of the internet by the pro-democracy group in Hong Kong. That year’s election registered a record 55.6% voter turnout (Goldman, Li & Perry 51). The e-mobilization made voters understand that an election is an opportunity for them to express their demands for democracy. In the 2006 elections, things changed. Online campaigns and SMS of get-out-to-vote especially to individual voters were used. Websites, email campaigns as well as blogs were used to sensitize and motivate voters. In the end, the voter turnout was 27% which was a record turnout and 83% of pro-democracy candidates won in their races (Ku (b) 7). They also used emails and SMS to reach the public and achieve large unprompted response during decisive political times. Internet has provided a platform for organizing activities against harsh government policies. Activists who were seeking to prevent the government from manipulating the government-owned Public Service Broadcaster started a blog which was later on turned into a cyberspace where activists express their dissatisfaction to the government (Yeung (b) 24).
The internet also makes it possible for the civil society to come together and form alliances as well as operational networks even when there are no formally instituted organizations. The new media is people-based and has created a sense empowerment to the general public. Today, the civil society in Hong Kong is able to make spontaneous mobilization of citizens through the internet (Lam & Irene 137). 1 July rallies have always had large turnouts as well as other mass protests (Chan & Francis(c) 31). Emails, websites, chart-rooms as well as mobile text-messaging have become the means of communication for the civil society groups (Wu 137). In 2005 for example, emails and SMS were used to mobilize people to protest against a constitutional reform that was due to be implemented in 2007/8 as it was considered conservative and retrogressive (Chan & Francis(a) 24). The law was bound to make the already unique political system even more complicated. The population turned in large numbers as they wanted to ensure that pro-democracy lawmakers vote against government proposals.
Hong Kong has a relatively stable political stability since it gained sovereignty in 1997. However, the government and pro-government politicians and wealthy individuals have not been ready to uphold the spirit of democracy in Hong Kong. The government and the pro-Beijing politicians have constantly put pressure on the mainstream media constraining media freedom. The government is not ready to tolerate media houses which reveal scandals in the government and statutory institutions and therefore intercepts communication of the media and uses Chinese officials to threaten the media. The media houses are also threatened by the increasing self-censorship. The government is determined to hold the grip on the media and is not ready to license media stations that are likely to be very critical about its activities. Although the civil society is active in Hong Kong, the government is not ready to strengthen their existence and activities. However, with the development and spread of the new media, the internet, pro-democratic activities have been greatly enhanced giving the civil society, the media as well as democrats the chance to pressure the government to ensure democracy.
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