A generation after Hong Kong was handed back to China, the level of media freedom in the former British colony has never been so low. Physical violence against journalists has declined in recent years but control of the media continues to grow despite the emergence of a few independent but fragile online media outlets.

Hong Kong will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty back to China with great pomp tomorrow, July 1, which is also the 96th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding and the day that Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam, officially takes office after being elected by a small committee with Beijing’s support.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has invited himself to the festivities, which will include a gigantic firework show that will display the letters HK in the sky, along with “China” in simplified Mandarin characters, the official language on the mainland but little used by Hong Kong’s residents.

Twenty-six journalists representing ten Hong Kong media will not be accredited to cover these events, just as they were barred from covering Lam’s election in March, because the authorities do not recognize media that publish solely online. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) has been demanding equal treatment for online media for five years but the request curiously continues to be “under examination.”

As for journalists lucky enough to be sent accreditation, the message could not have been clearer. The accompanying document said that their personal details could be shared with all law enforcement agencies.

Mainstream media under control

This is not insignificant in the Hong Kong of 2017. In the course of 20 years of pro-Chinese rule, a sizeable proportion of the former British colony’s freedoms has been eroded although they are in theory guaranteed by its status as Special Administrative Region.

In the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders RSF, Hong Kong has fallen from 18th in 2002 (when the Index was created) to 73rd now. Amnesty International describes the human rights situation as the worst in 20 years. This is free speech and media freedom “with Chinese characteristics,” to use the Beijing newspeak that the Hong Kong residents find so hard to assimilate.

What can they expect from the traditional media? Most of the media owners have major business interests in China and more than half are members of Chinese political bodies such as the National People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference. If these media bosses want to do business on the mainland, nothing helps more than a good measure of “patriotism,” meaning self-censorship.

The Communications Authority, which is in charge of regulating Hong Kong’s media, keeps an eye out for problems from those owners who have not understood this. One of its methods is to threaten non-renewal of their outlet’s license (see our report: “Beijing’s invisible hand on Hong Kong’s media”).

The acquisition in December 2015 of the Hong Kong English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, by Jack Ma (馬雲), the executive chairman of the Chinese Internet commerce company Alibaba, dashed any remaining hope that this venerable institution, created in 1903, might still play a watchdog role.

At the start of 2016, nearly 30 of its employees including all of its international section left the newspapers and were immediately replaced by people with a reputation for being docile or pro-Beijing.

Discreeter methods replace physical violence

Fortunately, physical violence against the media has declined in the past two years, aside from a police attack on a journalist with the daily Ming Pao who was covering rioting in the Mongkok district in February 2016. More than a year later, the justice system seems to be in no hurry to shed light on the case.

The violence peaked in 2014, the year of the “Umbrella Revolution,” in which tens of thousands of protesters demanding more democracy staged a street sit-in that went on for more than two months. On the 79th day, police broke up the protest using tear gas, leaving many people injured including journalists covering the event.

2014 began with a knife attack on Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau and continued with intermittent acts of violence against media outlets, especially the Next Media group, which had to cope in turn with the blocking of its printing press, two Molotov Cocktail attacks and a large-scale cyber-attack. But in the end, these spectacular acts just increased public hostility towards the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

Journalists harassed, fired

Since then, the government seems to have preferred discreeter methods of harassing and silencing independent journalists and media. The leading daily Ming Pao suddenly fired its editor, Keung Kwok-yuen, on economic grounds on April 20, 2016, hours after he ran a story focusing on well-known local politicians and businessmen who had been named in the “Panama Papers” investigation.

Despite a wave of protests, Keung was not reinstated and he joins the long list of journalists whose outspoken reporting has led to their dismissal, a practice that has unfortunately become common in Hong Kong.

The Chinese-language Sing Pao Daily News is known for its pro-Beijing line but its chairman, Chinese businessman Gu Zhuoheng, paid the price when the newspaper ran a series of editorials in 2016 criticizing Hong Kong’s chief executive and his links in China. The Chinese police issued a warrant for Gu’s arrest for alleged financial fraud, forcing him to flee abroad. In February of this year, a cyber-attack blocked the newspaper’s website for a day.

A new generation of media online

With the traditional media failing to do their job, the public has turned to the Internet and to the handful of independent online newspapers that have emerged in the past two years or so. Professional-looking although run on a shoestring, they have added to the independently-reported online local news coverage that the veteran inMedia has been providing since 2004. The new outlets include HK01, The Initium, Post852, Stand News, Hong Kong Free Press and Citizen News.

Funded by reader donations, the non-profit Stand News was the first of the new generation news sites to have kept going. Businessman Tony Tsoi launched it in January 2015, a few months after being forced to close an earlier site, House News, in the wake of being kidnapped and threatened by the security services during a visit to China.

The English-language Hong Kong Free Press was next. Two freelance journalists created it in the summer of 2015 after a crowdfunding campaign gathered four times the anticipated amount. After operating for two years, it claims to have published 8,500 stories, to have had 500,000 unique visitors and to have 1 million pageviews a month. This is a significant readership in a territory with 7.3 million inhabitants, 95 percent of them Chinese-speaking.

The Chinese-language subscription site Citizen News appeared in January of this year. It was founded by a dozen media veterans including Kevin Lau, who used his convalescence to help develop the project, and Daisy Li, a famous journalist who received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 1994.

However, the prospects of these new online media outlets are uncertain. They are barred from covering official events, they are using non-commercial economic models whose viability has yet to be demonstrated, they are exposed to the possibility of cyber-attacks and it is very difficult if not impossible for them to cover Mainland China.

Furthermore, they are also exposed to the possibility of being subjected to the same brutal methods that were used to rein in Hong Kong’s independent publishing sector.

Kidnapped publishers

Although two years have gone by, no one has forgotten the abduction in 2015 of five members of the staff of a Hong Kong-based publishing house specializing in sensationalist books about senior Chinese leaders. They subsequently appeared on Chinese TV, escorted by police officers and forced to confess their “crimes.”

Another publisher, Yiu Mantin, in 2014 had previously been sentenced to ten years in prison in China as he was about to publish a book in Hong Kong with a suggestive title, “Xi Jinping, China’s godfather.”

In Hong Kong nowadays, you think twice about publishing revelations about Beijing’s leaders, especially as one of the publishers, British citizen Lee Bo, was kidnapped in Hong Kong itself and another, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen kidnapped in Thailand, is still held in China.

These two cases serve as a constant reminder to Hong Kong’s inhabitants that nothing – no passport and no border – gives them complete protection from China’s intelligence services. They constitute a permanent threat, especially as Beijing has turned the abduction and torture of human rights activists into one of the trademarks of its authoritarian methods in recent years.

Editor: Edward White