With exquisite timing, Hong Kong’s Commercial Radio fires talk-show host Li Wei-ling at the same time that the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists accuses Beijing of clamping down on press freedom in the city (and in Taiwan). This comes after a series of rumored or actual events suggesting that Chinese officials in Hong Kong are actively pressuring media proprietors to gag anti-government voices.
Asia Sentinel’s recent coverage here and here gives a lengthy list of examples. They include the failure of HKTV to get a broadcasting licence last year, personnel reshuffles in various papers and stations, and allegations of advertisers’ boycotts of dissenting news outlets. This sort of thing goes back years, but it seems to have become a regular pattern in the last six months or so.
In the Mainland, state censorship and control is the rule. They throw people in prison for saying the government should obey the constitution, arrest them up for complaining about corruption, and charge them with concocted tax-and-hooker offences for writing snarky Weibo posts – indeed, they are pretty much killing off Weibo. They have even criminalized the writing of unacceptable online rumours that are re-posted more than 500 times. (Singapore is no less pathetic in its own little way, requiring the licensing of ‘news’ websites.)
None of this paranoid despotism happens in Hong Kong or Taiwan. The CPJ obviously uses quite demanding criteria when ranking nations by press freedom, as even the US is plummeting down the table this year to 46th position, as if set to match North Korea by 2018. In Hong Kong’s case, the CPJ is not measuring press freedom (or the lack of it) so much as the freedom of media owners to shoeshine Beijing by curbing their outlets’ negative coverage of the government.
The acquisition of the local news industry by pro-Beijing tycoons is an old story, going back to the Communists’ co-option of our feudal-capitalist class in the 1980s. The tycoon burdens himself with a politically stressful and commercially disastrous business as a pitiful sign of fealty. He must damage his outlets’ credibility as and when required to show how loyal he is (or hurt his conglomerate’s sales figures by refraining from advertising in Apple Daily).
Recently heightened interference in these print and radio operations by China’s locally based enforcers is probably in line with the rising degree of meddling in other areas (getting splintered pro-establishment political groupings to consolidate, for example). This probably reflects fear and desperation about Occupy Central’s imminent CIA-backed coup, plus Chairman Xi Jinping’s stepped-up control-freakery, plus maybe plain old empire-building or power struggles in Beijing’s local Liaison Office.
The murky officials behind the scenes can’t seriously expect such self-censorship to enable more effective government. At best, it invites ridicule; at worst, it builds up anti-Beijing sentiment in the community. Oh, and it damages the Big Lychee’s precious international reputation even more than higher stamp duty on property speculators. (A free clue: if you really want to improve the administration’s image, replace the crap policies with good ones.)
RTHK Radio 3 this morning interviewed the HK Journalists Association’s Shirley Yam, thus sparing listeners the usual screeching from reporters-turned-politicians Emily Lau and Claudia Mo. Their blood-curdling warnings of doom should be kept in reserve for the day the government really looks set to shut down newsrooms (and banks, and courts) and arrest people for conveying awkward factual information and expressing unsupportive opinions. So far, the tyrants strike fear into spineless newspaper-owning moguls, not the rest of us.
We are told that the decline of traditional media in the face of on-line alternatives is a bad thing, but it has an undeniable democratizing and liberating side to it (as with book publishing). Freedom of speech doesn’t require a government licence or a job at a tycoon’s dud subsidiary. Li Wei-ling is at liberty to speak – even say ‘crap’ – on streaming audio or on YouTube. It’s not as convenient or accessible as Commercial Radio (though the TuneIn app on my Galaxy brings me thousands of real-time stations from around the planet – two in Bhutan – anywhere in Hong Kong, anytime). If people really want to listen to her, they can, and it’s getting easier all the time. Of course, she might not get paid for it. You can’t have everything.