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International relations

Hong Kong press freedom index drops to new low

Journalists Association blames pressure from China

Victor Mallet, then vice president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong and Financial Times Asia news editor, was effectively evicted from Hong Kong last October. (Picture taken Aug.14, 2018)   © Reuters

HONG KONG (Kyodo) -- Press freedom in Hong Kong has witnessed the worst decline in years due to pressure from China, media bosses and self-censorship, according to the latest annual survey by the Hong Kong Journalists Association released Tuesday.

The press freedom mark is now 45 on a 100-point scale, down from 47.1 in the previous year, according to the 2018 Press Freedom Index. The decline was the largest and the index is now at its lowest since the survey was first conducted in 2013.

The survey of 1,000 members of the public rated pressure on editorial decisions by media owners or management as the factor of most concern, followed by self-censorship in criticizing the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government.

"The 'red-line' as laid down by (Chinese) President Xi Jinping during his 2017 visit in Hong Kong has somewhat materialized in the past year," the association's Chairman Chris Yeung told reporters. "Worries over upholding the 'one country, two systems' principle as well as over self-censorship have been rising."

Referring to a "red line," Xi has in a speech warned Hong Kong against activities that endanger China's sovereignty and security or challenge the power of the central government.

Yeung said apart from blaming pressure from China, the local government also failed to give confidence by its loose attitude toward upholding Hong Kong's semiautonomous status.

"Take the case of Victor Mallet, for example, the government has acted in a way much differed from what was expected. It does not see that as a problem. It even stated that (not renewing Mallet's work visa) does not affect press freedom, without giving explanation," Yeung said.

Then vice president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong and Financial Times Asia news editor, Mallet was effectively evicted from Hong Kong last October after the government declined to renew his work visa following an FCC talk he helped host for an independence advocate. That event drew harsh criticism from Beijing for providing a platform for separatism advocacy.

Nearly 70 percent of the surveyed found Mallet's case detrimental to Hong Kong's press freedom, while some 97 percent of 535 journalists also surveyed for the index thought so.

About 22 percent of the journalists also said they have been pressured by superiors to reduce or avoid coverage on issues related to Hong Kong independence, and 69 percent said they felt a sense of unease when reporting on news contradicting Chinese officials' rhetoric of "one country trumps two systems."

"For journalists, nothing is worse than self-censorship," association vice chairwoman Shirley Yam said. "This is more worrisome than other kinds of pressure. Journalists might think twice before deciding whether to write a story or fear for repercussion that follows. With the red lines drawn, do we still want to cross them?"

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