International press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders have lowered Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking by four places in this year’s global index.
The 2017 ranking table examines 180 countries and regions. Hong Kong came in at 73, with China ranked at 176. Taiwan, however, rose six places to be 45 – the highest ranking among all Asian countries.
The group questioned whether Hong Kong was facing the “beginning of the end of ‘one country, two systems’,” a principle China designed to guarantee autonomy for the city.
Benjamin Ismaïl, head of Asia-Pacific desk at the NGO, said there was no shortage of examples demonstration the erosion of press freedom in 2016.
“Many free speech and human rights groups have condemned the broadcasting by several outlets of the forced confessions of Hong Kong booksellers arrested in China,” he told HKFP.
He said some observers have also pointed out changes in the editorial line of some outlets like the English-language South China Morning Post, which was acquired by Chinese internet giant Alibaba.
“Several Hong Kong citizens contacted us to inform us of censorship of their comments on the media’s website and the absence of [a] clear explanation,” Ismaïl added.
He also noted that the government had limited the access of digital media outlets to government press conferences and events.
“The fact that digital media, such as Hong Kong Free Press, are considered ‘2nd class media’ and face discrimination in terms of accreditation also shows the difficulties for independent journalists to work freely.”
The ranking is compiled partly by using a questionnaire, which is targeted at media professionals, lawyers and sociologists. The questionnaire focuses on indicators such as pluralism, media independence, the overall environment and self-censorship, legislative frameworks, transparency and infrastructure.
The Paris-based group recalled incidents whereby outspoken journalists, such as those working for tabloid Apple Daily, were exposed to violence by “the Chinese Communist Party’s henchmen.”
“Self-censorship is also rampant, and the index is also a reflection of the perception of press freedom by local journalists,” said Ismaïl. “A majority have expressed an increasing pressure which results in deliberate self-censorship.”
Reporters Without Borders earlier this month decided to open its first Asia office in Taiwan, after rejecting Hong Kong over concerns that China poses the “biggest threat” to press freedom.
Cedric Alviani, director of the Taipei Bureau, said the new office could offer greater support for Hong Kong’s fight for press freedom.
“In Hong Kong, we might be under surveillance, we might have pressure on the staff,” he told HKFP. “Nobody is 100 per cent safe… But for our central office that is covering seven countries… it wouldn’t be a safe choice to have chosen Hong Kong.”
“We think we can bring more support by not [being] directly exposed,” he said. Alviani also said Taiwan’s high ranking may not be because of improvements in the region recently, but rather a global decline in press freedom may have indirectly kept Taiwan relatively free.
“Taiwan also has problems of government officials trying to interfere with the work of the state-owned media,” he added. “Taiwan also has the problem of mainland China interfering more and more into the editorial line of some of the private media.”
But he noted that Taiwan’s past improvements as being “beautiful.”