Published: 00:24, May 9, 2024
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Press freedom: Foreign slurs exposed as fake news
By Grenville Cross

After the UK foreign secretary, Lord (David) Cameron, issued his latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong on April 15, readers quickly realized elementary fact-checking had been neglected. It covered July to December 2023, and was found to be flawed in key areas. Instead of an objective analysis of Hong Kong’s situation, it was little more than a propaganda broadsheet.

Although it is unclear if, before publication, Cameron cleared his draft with the UK consul general in Hong Kong, Brian Davidson, he appears not to have done so. As the man on the ground, it is hard to see how Davidson could have signed off on such a shoddy piece of work. However, it is possible that Davidson highlighted its deficiencies but was overruled, given Cameron’s determination to embarrass China (and gratify the United States).

It is not easy to identify which aspects of the report were the most egregious, but Cameron’s remarks about media freedom rank highly. He accused the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government of having acted “to restrict freedom of the press”, and pointed to the prosecution of Stand News for conspiracy to publish seditious articles. He even took a swipe at “the use of colonial-era seditions laws”, which was a bit rich.

Not only did the UK introduce the sedition laws in Hong Kong in the 1930s, its local government then deployed them to clamp down on newspapers whose political views it disliked. Indeed, prison terms were meted out after Ta Kung Pao was prosecuted in 1952 for its coverage of the government’s response to the Tung Tau Tsuen squatter fire and again, in 1967, after three leftist newspapers were charged over articles allegedly intended to arouse discontent among police officers.

Having got the bit between his teeth, Cameron then surpassed himself. Although the National Security Law for Hong Kong saved the city from the attempts by fanatics to destroy the “one country, two systems” policy (which had its roots in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984), he resorted to cheap potshots at its expense. Whereas Davidson could have told him this was codswallop, he claimed the NSL’s “implementation has led to the curtailing of fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of press”.

As Davidson knew, there is a free flow of information in Hong Kong and a vibrant media. Criticism of government policy is in no way curtailed and, if constructive, is welcomed. As anybody who has studied the West’s anti-China campaigners can confirm, they regularly cite criticisms of the Hong Kong SAR government which they have located on the city’s anti-government media platforms, which rarely pull their punches.

As in the UK, however, the media does not enjoy carte blanche, and there are red lines. Like everybody else, it must abide by the law. It nonetheless enjoys a battery of protections (none, strangely, mentioned by Cameron). Whereas the Basic Law guarantees “freedom of speech, of the press and publication” (Art.27), the Hong Kong Bill of Rights (echoing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art.19), safeguards “freedom of expression and opinion” (Art.15).

Although Cameron’s report failed to reflect the extent of media activity in Hong Kong and the city’s prioritization of press freedom, he will hopefully try harder next time. If Davidson briefs him correctly, there is no reason to suppose he will not improve. If, however, he is determined to besmirch Hong Kong to embarrass Beijing, not even Davidson will be able to put him on the right track

As if these protections were not emphatic enough, the NSL highlights them yet further. It emphasizes that, in the enforcement of the NSL, the “rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech, of the press, of publication” which people enjoy under the Basic Law and the ICCPR “shall be protected in accordance with the law” (Art.4). This also extends to the enforcement of the newly enacted Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, which Cameron likewise disregarded.  

Davidson hopefully told Cameron these media protections go well beyond anything available to UK residents. Indeed, unlike the NSL, the UK’s National Security Act 2023 says nothing about freedom of the press, let alone the ICCPR.

It is true that some thought was given to introducing a fake news law in Hong Kong in 2021, which might have affected media activity. This was because misinformation was widely used during the insurrection to destabilize the city and alarm its people. If the idea had proceeded, it could have resembled Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act of 2019 directed at deliberate online falsehoods created by malicious actors. However, given the prevailing circumstances, and undoubtedly with the views of the fourth estate in mind, the chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, announced, on April 23, that a fake-news law was unnecessary. He noted that “self-discipline and professionalism” by journalists could curb the circulation of falsehoods.

In 2021, when the idea of a fake-news law was first mooted, concerns were raised. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) warned that it could make it harder for independent news outlets to operate, and would have a huge impact on the flow of information. After Lee’s announcement, however, the HKJA chairman, Ronson Chan Ron-sing, welcomed the decision, pointing out that fake news could be handled in other ways. If journalists are professional and pursue fact-based journalism, there is no need for anybody to fear for press freedom, not even Cameron.

As objective observers acknowledge, Hong Kong has a vigorous media scene that is more than capable of withstanding comparison with any other in Asia.

As of Dec 31, 2023, there were 90 daily newspapers and 376 periodicals operating in Hong Kong (including many electronic publications), three domestic free television program service licensees, one domestic pay television program service licensee, nine nondomestic television program service licensees, one public service broadcaster, and two sound broadcasting licensees. The availability of the latest telecommunications technology has encouraged international news agencies, global newspapers and overseas broadcasting corporations to establish regional headquarters or representative offices in Hong Kong.

They include 61 Chinese-language dailies, 11 English-language dailies, 14 bilingual dailies and three Japanese dailies. Among the Chinese-language dailies, 43 cover mainly local and overseas general news, while the remainder focus on other subjects, such as finance. International publications, including The Economist, The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Nikkei, The Wall Street Journal, Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press, Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters also have a presence in Hong Kong.

International broadcasters with operations in Hong Kong include the BBC, CNBC, CNN International, CNA and NHK. Although their broadcasts are frequently inaccurate and slanted, they know they can get away with it because of Hong Kong’s hands-off approach to the press and its unwavering commitment to media freedom.

Although Cameron’s report failed to reflect the extent of media activity in Hong Kong and the city’s prioritization of press freedom, he will hopefully try harder next time. If Davidson briefs him correctly, there is no reason to suppose he will not improve. If, however, he is determined to besmirch Hong Kong to embarrass Beijing, not even Davidson will be able to put him on the right track.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.