Once considered a bastion of press freedom, Hong Kong now ranks below Cambodia and just above Turkey in the World Press Freedom Index
Hong Kong fell 68 places in the World Press Freedom Index this year, moving to 148th in 2021, from 80th in 2021.
Though the introduction to the 2022 index suggests caution in comparing directly with 2021 due to a methodological update in questions used to compile the rankings, the direction of travel for Hong Kong is undeniable and dramatic, and allows abstract discussion to be tied down into concrete comparison. The region was ranked 18th in 2002 and was considered “a bastion of press freedom.” After the events of the last two years, it is certainly not. Hong Kong this year ranks below Cambodia (142) and just above Turkey (149).
The ranking system is based on a “quantitative survey of press freedom violations and abuses against journalists and media,” as well as “a qualitative study based on the responses of hundreds of press freedom experts selected by [Reporters Without Borders].” With these as tools, the index offers a broad picture of what it elsewhere describes as the Chinese government’s ongoing “assault on press freedom” in Hong Kong. It incorporates a wide range of criteria, assessing specific areas of freedom such as “the degree to which journalists and media are free to work without censorship or judicial sanctions, or excessive restrictions on their freedom of expression” and “unnecessary risk of bodily harm (including murder, violence, arrest, detention and abduction).”
Filling in the details with a series of high profile examples of where such freedoms have been shut down, Reporters Without Borders draws out a two-year timeline of the intensified crackdown on press freedom which followed the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law. The law, passed by China’s parliament on May 28, 2020, allows for life imprisonment for four loosely defined “crimes against the state” including secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces. The site’s timeline includes the now infamous arrest and imprisonment of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, with charges under the National Security Law including “collusion with foreign forces,” as well as the shuttering of Apple Daily and Stand News after police raids on their premises.
Those events, plus the arrests of several other high profile protesters against the National Security Law, are already enshrined as historic symbols of a deep-freeze on press freedom in Hong Kong. However, the situation is still developing, as the Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club recent cancellation of this year’s Human Rights Press Awards demonstrates.
In a statement emailed to members at the end of April, club president Keith Richburg said its board had “regretfully decided to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards pending further review,” just days before they were due to be handed out. He explained that: “Over the last two years, journalists in Hong Kong have been operating under new ‘red lines’ on what is and is not permissible, but there remain significant areas of uncertainty and we do not wish unintentionally to violate the law.”
In short, the limits of press freedom are still being defined, and the uncertainty itself is having a limiting effect on what people say and do. The ranking drop is not just a number, then, it is the distillation of an ongoing, everyday reality.
Image: Pasu Au Yeung, Wikimedia