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Entrusting CCP with media ethics is like putting a python in charge of chicken eggs | Benedict Rogers

This week has been a bad one for media freedom in Hong Kong. It began with RTHK removing from Youtube, Facebook and other channels its archives of programmes more than a year old, and then firing one of its most incisive reporters, Nabela Qoser — on World Press Freedom Day.

This was followed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s ludicrous lie that “nobody has given RTHK a new role” and that it remains a public service broadcaster. Well, “public service” according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s definition of the term, not according to a concept that any open society would understand.

Can you imagine the BBC inviting the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to present four shows a day, every day? Yet that is what RTHK has done with “Chat Show Carrie”, in an Orwellian venture which I described in my column last week. Sure, the BBC gives the Prime Minister occasional slots for broadcasts in the public interest — particularly in emergencies, such as war, terrorist incidents, Brexit or during the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year — but not four a day, every day.

It is no coincidence that on the same day as RTHK’s mass deletions, the Hong Kong Press Freedom Index was released, indicating a record low. According to the annual poll, almost 99 per cent of respondents said that the draconian National Security Law has undermined Hong Kong’s free press. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) survey gave the city 32.1 points out of 100 for press freedom — the lowest rating ever since it was introduced in 2013. As HKJA’s chairman Chris Yeung put it, “press freedom is sinking, and [we] don’t know if it has reached rock bottom yet.”

In another blow, the very next day Ms Lam confirmed that the government was working on legislation to ban what it regards as “fake news”, in order to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies”. On the surface, most of us would oppose fake news, misinformation, hatred and lies and might welcome efforts to counter them (though personally I would always prefer non-legislative ways). But who is the greatest disseminator of fake news, misinformation, hatred and lies? The CCP and its proxy puppets such as Ms Lam. Entrusting them with cleaning up media ethics is like putting a python in charge of chicken eggs, or allowing the CCP a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Given the definitions of “crimes” under the National Security Law, I dread to think how they would define — or apply — laws preventing so-called “fake news”.

This all comes fast on the heels of the conviction of ex-RTHK journalist Bao Choy, fined HK$6,000 last month for accessing public records to investigate police conduct related to the “7.21” Yuen Long mob attack in 2019. Bao Choy, who confirmed this week that she is appealing this conviction, described her case as “only one of the illustrations under the grander scheme of the political situation — of the whole attack against press freedom.”

It also follows RTHK’s decision to drop veteran journalist Steve Vines as a commentator, and the resignation of several other RTHK staff including the brilliant Yvonne Tong, the reporter who famously challenged the World Health Organisation (WHO) official Dr Bruce Aylward over the status of Taiwan. Both are a big loss to the broadcaster, though proof of what Mr Vines writes in his superb new book — Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship — that the CCP “is keen to extinguish all remaining embers of liberty” in Hong Kong.

And this week’s events also come soon after the violent attack on the Epoch Times’ printing press by a gang with sledgehammers, furious verbal attacks by Beijing on the Foreign Correspondents Club (of which I used to be a member) and warnings from Reporters Without Borders that the National Security Law poses a “grave threat” to media freedom in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government declared it was “appalled” by Reporters Without Borders’ report, and so am I — though I suspect for different reasons. I was appalled by the fact that media freedom in Hong Kong is in such real danger; the government was appalled that this threat had been uncovered.

For me as a former journalist who began my career in Hong Kong in 1997, this is all heartbreaking. When I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover, the city had a vibrant and free media. I worked first as an editor of a small business journal called China STAFF, published by Asia Law and Practice, a subsidiary of Euromoney/Institutional Investor. The journal, focused on human resources management in China, was respected in its field and — despite its narrow professional niche — was highly independent. We regularly published stories critical of the CCP’s labor laws, exposing abuses of labor rights, examining the management challenges in joint venture enterprises in China, and once featured an interview with the former Tiananmen activist and labor rights campaigner Han Dongfang. That particular edition, with a quote from Han on the front cover that read: “‘One day workers will take to the streets’, warns labor dissident,” was banned in mainland China, but was freely published in Hong Kong. Under the National Security Law, that might have got me arrested.

After almost three years, I moved to the now defunct Hong Kong iMail — which had been the Hong Kong Standard — as editorial writer and columnist. I wrote editorials and columns fiercely critical of Beijing and its cronies in the Hong Kong government, and the worst I received was a complaint on one occasion from Regina Ip (in 2001) to my editor about a piece I’d written about her. The editor ignored her and laughed — a response that, I venture to suggest, is always the most appropriate when dealing with Ms Ip.

Admittedly, I did see the writing on the wall when tobacco tycoon Charles Ho bought the newspaper, along with the rest of the Sing Tao group. In September 2001 he launched a night of the long knives, sacking 100 staff including the then editor, signalling that the newspaper’s days as the courageous free-speaking, free-thinking media outlet it set out to be were coming to an end. Miraculously, despite being responsible for most of the newspaper’s outspoken editorials, I survived the cull but realized fairly quickly that the spirit of the publication had vanished and I left a few months later. But even then, when I moved back to the UK in 2002, I did not foresee just how dramatically the situation would deteriorate two decades later.

Two days ago, it was Gui Minhai’s 57th birthday. The former owner of Causeway Bay Books should have been celebrating with his family, but instead spent his birthday in jail in mainland China for the sixth consecutive year. Abducted from his holiday apartment in Thailand in 2015 and forced to deliver a “confession” on Chinese state television, Gui’s fate should be a wake-up call to the world about the CCP’s intolerance of freedom of expression and its total rejection of media freedom. And he must not be forgotten. All of us who believe in media freedom should continuously remind the world of his plight, and relentlessly demand his release.

Human rights come as a package, without hierarchy. All basic freedoms are inter-dependent and inseparable. When one freedom is undermined or denied, freedom itself is under attack. But there are, nevertheless, some rights that are foundational, and media freedom is one of them. As Nelson Mandela said, “a critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy”. I would go further and say it is not only vital for a democracy, but as a pillar of any open society.

With whatever remained of Hong Kong’s democracy having been dismantled in recent months, and with the city increasingly becoming a closed and repressed society, it is the words of the proprietor of this fine publication that increasingly ring true. Writing from prison, Jimmy Lai said a few weeks ago: “Freedom of speech is a dangerous job”. That’s why it has never been more important for all of us to fight to defend whatever remains of media freedom in Hong Kong. I know Hong Kong’s courageous journalists will continue that fight, and I will do everything possible to use the freedoms I have to support you. I hope the rest of the free world will too.

(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC.)

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