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Macau press freedom survey: Journalists cite decline in access to information

SCMP photographer Felix Wong was prevented from entering Macau. Photo: SCMP SCMP photographer Felix Wong was prevented from entering Macau. Photo: SCMP

Press freedom still exists in Macau in spite of a growing trend among authorities to limit access to information, according to a survey of journalists operating in the special administrative region.

While 79.55% of reporters surveyed agreed there was press freedom and 70.45% said they had never been subject to a violation of press freedom rights, a majority said that they had encountered obstacles in accessing sources of information, particularly the judiciary (68.18%). The survey found that 58.82% of respondents described access to the Government as the executive body as ‘difficult’; and 54.55% said the same of access to the group executing governmental policy and providing services to the residents of the MSAR.

The relatively small number (20.45%) who said they had been subject to a violation of press freedom rights detailed incidents including the ‘Case of the Gravesites’, in which one journalist described a refusal of rights to sign notices of political nature; or of Oktoberfest 2015, in which “during the press conference the journalists were instructed to not ask questions that weren’t related to the event, as well as being instructed to ask questions about the brand of beer sponsoring the event”.

The survey, conducted in November 2016 by the Macau Portuguese and English Press Association (AIPIM), comes just weeks after the publication of the 2017 annual World Press Freedom Index in which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlighted Thailand, where the media industry is increasingly muzzled by a military government; and Cambodia, where defamation laws have been criminalised to silence dissent.

Since the survey was conducted, Macau has been at the centre of two incidents indicating an erosion of press freedom. In August this year, four journalists – one from HK01, one from South China Morning Post and two from Apple Daily – were trying to cover the clean-up work in Macau after the enclave was heavily hit by the Severe Typhoon Hato. They were denied entry on the grounds that they ‘posed a threat to the stability of the territory’s internal security’.

Shortly afterwards, the AIPIM learned that the Electoral Affairs Commission for the Legislative Assembly Election (CAEAL) had ordered weekly newspaper Plataforma to remove from its online edition an interview with a candidate to the Legislative Assembly elections.

READ MORE: Press freedom plumbs fresh depths in Southeast Asia

The AIPIM survey concluded: “Based on a thorough analysis of this survey, we may conclude that the major problem faced by the journalistic community is precisely access to sources, namely in what concerns information that should be public and is concealed as a result of a system where journalists are forced to request it via the Government Spokesperson mechanism. The area which is conspicuously more problematic is the judiciary.

“The survey allows us to conclude that in their daily work journalists are faced with difficulties in accessing sources of information which allow them to better understand the surrounding environment and obstacles in obtaining answers to questions that loom while performing their duty as journalists.”

FCC statement on detention of photojournalists covering Rohingya crisis

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong and the Editorial Committee of The Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) are deeply concerned about the detention of photojournalist Minzayar Oo and his assistant Hkun Lat, Myanmar citizens who were on assignment in Bangladesh for GEO magazine to cover the Rohingya crisis. We call on Bangladeshi authorities to immediately release both of them.

Minzayar Oo and Hkun Lat were assigned by GEO magazine because of their professionalism and their journalistic integrity. Minzayar Oo is an internationally renowned, award winning photojournalist, whose work is published widely and has been recognised by some of the world’s most important journalism awards.

The pair were detained more than a week ago in Cox’s Bazar, where around 400,000 Rohingya have sought refuge since August from the fresh violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Their lawyer told AFP that they were charged with “false impersonation” and providing “false information” after police accused them of using the cover of tourist visas to enter the country, instead of journalist visas.

Cox’s Bazar police station Officer-in-Charge (OC) Ranjit Kumar Barua said the pair were also “primarily accused of espionage.”

“They were collecting information on the Rohingya for Myanmar,” he said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it was unable to get comments regarding the matter from the Cox’s Bazar police immediately. Calls to Ranjit Barua were unanswered, and police did not respond to email promptly.

Cambodia Daily closure: FCC Hong Kong calls on government to drop charges against proprietors

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong expresses deep regret over the closure of The Cambodia Daily, which ceased operations on September 4 under government threats of legal action over a tax dispute. The independent newspaper, established in 1993 to provide a foundation of press freedom in an emerging democracy, trained dozens of local journalists and boasts an alumni spread across media outlets around the region and the world. Its demise is a blow to press freedom and diversity.

As the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia has noted, the government calculated a huge tax bill without referring to The Cambodia Daily’s books, and gave no opportunity for the newspaper to appeal or negotiate. Moreover, the Tax Department has reportedly filed criminal charges against its founder and two directors that could see them jailed for six years.

The episode shows how quickly a government can use its powers to silence the press, particularly smaller local independent publications lacking in financial means and international reach.

The FCCHK calls on the Cambodian government to drop any criminal charges against the publishers and seek a fair resolution of the tax dispute with The Cambodia Daily. It also urges the government to refrain from any other actions that undermine press freedom in the country, bearing in mind the benefits that a robust media environment serves in fostering democracy and promoting transparency.

The Cambodia Daily, whose motto was “All the News Without Fear or Favor”, sought to be a voice for the voiceless. Its abrupt closure after a quarter of a century shows that press freedom cannot be taken for granted.

FCC statement on threats to Al Jazeera

Three years ago, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong stood with our Al Jazeera English colleagues convicted in Egypt in a shocking attack on press freedom everywhere.

Today, we reiterate that call on behalf of Al Jazeera itself.

More than ever, the Gulf region and the world need the services of a news-gathering organisation that brings a unique, informed perspective.

To those that demand that Al Jazeera be shut down, and those that attack the work of our colleagues as fake news:

We demand journalists be able to do their jobs free from intimidation and threat.

We demand diversity of thought and opinion be cherished, not feared.

We demand the public have access to unbiased information.

We demand journalists not be treated as criminals.

We demand those without a voice be heard.

We demand press freedom.

You can join the conversation and share your demands using the hashtag #DemandPressFreedom.

FCC supports HKJA letter to Carrie Lam over discriminatory policy against Hong Kong online media

The FCC supports this letter from Hong Kong Journalists Association to new Chief Executive Carrie Lam over the Hong Kong government’s continued discriminatory policy against online-only media.

Dear Mrs Lam,

We are writing to express our disappointment in your failure to honour your promise to stop the government’s discriminatory policy against online-only media.

Journalists working in those media have been barred from attending at least two of your important press events, namely your first press gathering in your official capacity as the Chief Executive on July 3 and your press conference to introduce your team of principal officials on June 21.

The ban has contravened the press freedom charter that you have signed at an election campaign forum hosted by us. In the charter, you pledged to grant online-only media equal rights and access to government press functions.

Those arrangements have run against an earlier judgement by the Ombudsman Office that found the present ban unreasonable. The Ombudsman has called for flexibility in the accreditation of online journalists before a policy review is completed.

We appreciated that you and your campaign team have engaged online media in your campaign. Online journalists have been invited to attend all of your press events during the election campaign. By doing so, you have proved the so-called space and security concern raised by the Government in defending their ban is mere excuse. To keep the unreasonable and unjust policy towards online media after you took office unchanged is unacceptable.

We urge you to accept the Ombudsman’s recommendations in particular its call for flexibility. Before the completion of policy review, online-only journalists should be granted access to government press functions on the production of membership cards from the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association.

We look forward to your prompt response and are happy to discuss with you on the matter.

Hong Kong Journalists Association
4 July 2017

FCC and HKJA ‘concerned’ at government demand for journalists’ personal details for Handover anniversary coverage

The FCC stands by Hong Kong Journalists Association by co-signing this letter highlighting concerns that journalists have to provide personal details including their HKID number. They are also required to consent to the transfer of their personal data to the police.

Mr Joe Wong

The Director

Information Services Department

Dear Mr Wong,

We are writing to express our concern on the press accreditation for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to China.

According to accreditation form sent to us by our members, journalists have to provide personal details including their HKID number. They are also required to consent to the transfer of their personal data to the police.

This arrangement deviates from the long-held press accreditation practise of the government in which the police is rarely involved. A good comparison will be the One Belt One Road forum attended by Mr Zhang Dejiang, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Journalists were required to submit their personal data for accreditation and to bring along their identity card for entrance. There was no suggestion of police involvement in this process. Neither did the journalists have to consent to the passing of their personal information to the police.

There is no justification in changing the accreditation practice that has served every party well over the years. The personal data provided should be sufficient in identity verification while the meticulous security check and bag search at the door step of the venue would keep the event free from any hazard.

We are also disappointed that the digital-only media and their journalists are denied entry to this significant event. This is despite earlier appeals from both the Ombudsman and the High Court.

Both institutions have asked the government to be flexible in the accreditation of digital-only media before a review on the policy is completed. However, none of them has received any invitation to register for the event so far.

Both issues should be rectified as soon as possible. The police should not be involved in the accreditation of journalists.  No journalist should be forced to consent to the transfer of their personal data to the police in order to get entry to the event. Journalists from digital-only media holding the association’s membership cards should be accredited and allowed entry to celebration events. That has always been the policy under the Police General Orders.

We look forward to your prompt reply.

Hong Kong Journalists Association

14 June 2017

Hong Kong’s government not held to account by local press, FCC debate hears

Left to right: Shirley Yam, Florence de Changy, Chip Tsao. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Left to right: Shirley Yam, Florence de Changy, Chip Tsao. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

A rising sense on alienation among Hong Kong’s younger generation regarding China’s affairs has left them disinterested in holding the city’s government to account, thus local media also fails to do so.

This was the explanation put forward by columnist and former Ming Pao deputy editor Chip Tsao as he debated the state of Hong Kong’s press during a club lunch on the topic on June 7.

Asked by a reporter from the Financial Times why the Hong Kong government was not heavily questioned by the media after billionaire businessman Xiao Jianhua was abducted by Chinese officials from the Four Seasons Hotel in Central in February, Tsao said young people see incidents such as this as a ‘fight between a few big brothers’ and that the media then fails to follow up on these stories.

Also on the panel were Daisy Li, Chief Editor of Citizen News and former Chief Executive of the online news division of Apple Daily, Taiwan; and Shirley Yam, South China Morning Post columnist and vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. When asked whether they thought press freedom in Hong Kong had been eroded since the Handover in 1997, all panelists agreed it had.

The discussion covered the issue of censorship and self-censorship in the Hong Kong press, with Li recounting how a chief editor of a mainstream news organisation had told her she got daily phone calls from China’s liaison office in Hong Kong ‘telling her what to report or the line to take for tomorrow’s story’. The panel agreed that Hong Kong’s media was the victim of both censorship (from Central Government) and self-censorship, in that editors often second-guessed as to what their news organisation’s management wanted.

Watch the Periscope broadcast of the debate here

Yam, a columnist with SCMP for more than 10 years, expanded on the position of Hong Kong’s most read English-language newspaper since it was bought by Chinese tech firm Alibaba in December 2015.

She said: “I can quote what they said in a meeting to the staff. The role of the Post is to tell the China story to the world. Our target audience are the English-speaking audience, full stop… So they need someone who can speak the language… to tell the story that a foreigner can understand. I can see morning Post is happily taking up this role to tell the China story.” She added that she predicts other local media will begin to do the same.

Press freedom in Hong Kong shows slight improvement, though remains abysmally low

A recent Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) survey indicates a slight rise in the Hong Kong Press Freedom Index after two consecutive years of decline.

Based on personal experience journalists on the ground believe that the situation has worsened in 2016, compared to the year before. HKJA chairperson Sham Yee-lan explained that the slight increase in the Press Freedom Index was likely to be related to the emergence of online media, which has led to some diversity in the industry. However, since obtaining information for news coverage was becoming increasingly difficult, the improvement in the Index was limited. She urged the chief executive-elect- to implement her promise to enact a freedom of information law and archives law.

The Hong Kong Press Freedom Index for 2016 increased slightly by 0.6 points to 48 for the general public and a more significant 1.2 points to 39.4 for journalists compared to 2015. The index ranges from 0 to 100, which is the highest point for press freedom. Despite this first-ever increase in the Index after four years, Sham Yee-lan described the result as worrying, stating that both index were still below the passing score of 50.

In fact, the survey also shows that 72% of journalist respondents believe the overall press freedom had worsened in the past year. Meanwhile, the feedback from the general public was more diverse. A total of 45% of general public respondents believed that press freedom had worsened; while 42% believed that there had been no change./p>

However, as many as 71% and 97% of respondents from the general public and journalists respectively believed that the disappearance of the Causeway Bay bookseller had seriously affected press freedom in Hong Kong. Sham Yee-lan pointed out that as insiders, journalists would have a much deeper understanding of how the incident had worsened press freedom, thus contributing to a higher percentage.

The differences in the perceptions of the general public and journalists also appeared in other areas surveyed. The general public believed that difficulties were often faced by the news media when it tried to obtain information needed for reporting, rating it at 4.5 (with 0 being most common), with a slight increase of 0.3 compared to last year. In contrast, journalists believed that the situation had worsened, the rate dropping 0.3 from last year to 3.7 in the latest survey. Furthermore, both the general public and journalists believed that existing laws were insufficient to allow journalists to obtain the information they needed for reporting. With 10 being very adequate and 0 being very inadequate, the average rate for the general public was 5.7 and a much lower score of 4.3 for the suffering journalists. Journalists stated that Hong Kong government officials, including the chief executive, chose to avoid media inquiries on many occasions, maintaining a low rating of 2.8. The HKJA urged the government to enact the freedom of Information law as soon as possible, making sure that information held by the government and public bodies could be easily accessed by the general public and journalists in Hong Kong. In the meantime, it must implement the Basic Law to protect the freedom of expression enjoyed by Hong Kong people under the international human rights conventions so that the general public’s right to know could be protected.

The newly elected chief executive Carrie Lam had signed the Pledge to Uphold Press Freedom in an election forum held by The Hong Kong Journalists Association last month, promising to introduce an access to information law and archive law, as well as lifting the ban on access by online media to government press events and facilities within her term.

It is worth pointing out that the self-censorship rating had slightly improved since last year, yet it still had the lowest score amongst all categories, indicating that the problem was still severe. With 10 being not at all common and 0 being very common, the average rate for journalists was 3.1 while it was 4.5 for the general public.

In spite of all the obstacles, the Hong Kong media was still able to play its role as a watchdog. Their performance had been highly credited. The average score given by the general public and journalists were 6.2 and 6.3 respectively, similar to last year.

The Press Freedom Index was divided into two parts, the public and journalists. The former part was conducted by the HKU Public Opinion Programme from Jan 11 to 17. A total of 1010 Cantonese speaking Hong Kong residents aged 18 or above were successfully interviewed. A total of 465 journalists were successfully interviewed from Jan 14 to Feb 20 by the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The Press Freedom Index has been conducted since 2013. The HKJA would like to express its sincere appreciation for the generous help of members of the survey consultant group, who are as follows:

Ms. Mak Yin Ting (Former Chairperson, HKJA)
Mr. Ng Lap Tak (Convener of the press freedom committee, HKJA)
Dr. Clement So (Professor, School of Journalism & Communication, CUHK)
Prof. Lisa Leung (Associate Professor, Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University
Dr. Robert Chung (Director, Public Opinion Programme, HKU)

If there are further enquiries, please call us at 25910692.

Keith Richburg: In this digital age we need to get back to good, old-fashioned journalism

Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch

Put down your devices, get out reporting and speak to real people: that was the advice of renowned foreign correspondent and former FCC president Keith Richburg as he addressed members at a lively club lunch exploring the internet’s effect on press freedom.

The former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, who is now director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at HKU, said that while the digital revolution brought huge benefits in terms of instant access to news events, it also meant that journalism was suffering. Trying to be first with news is affecting the basic tenets of journalism, such as fact checking, he said.

“Lack of time is the enemy of journalists,” he told a packed meeting.

In a career spanning four decades, Richburg spoke of the rise of social media and how it had changed the way in which news organisations operate. He said that ‘people power’ uprisings in South East Asian countries including the Philippines during the 1980s had led him to form the opinion that other less open countries would follow. As the internet held democracies to account around the world, so it would also happen in China, he thought.

“But I was wrong,” he admitted.

Keith Richburg at the FCC. Keith Richburg at the FCC.

Richburg returned to Hong Kong in time for the handover in 1997. He was also FCC president at the time. As it turned out, the fear and angst of before the handover faded and, for a journalist, the lack of drama meant the handover story also faded quickly.

“The story of 1997 turned out to be the beginning of the Asian Economic Crisis,” he said. “It quickly led primarily to currency devaluations and a loss of faith in governments across the region. It also led to an upsurge of the kind of people-power movements that I thought I was going to see earlier [following People Power in the Philippines].

“You will recall it led to huge street demonstrations in Jakarta which eventually led to the fall of Suharto and the Reformasi movement in Indonesia; in Thailand it led to an outpouring of protests against the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. He was toppled and the people pushed for what became known as the people’s constitution that was going to institutionalise change in Thailand.

“We were all swept up in this idea that the economic crisis was going to change the Southeast Asian political landscape.”

Richburg said that at the end of 1997 he wrote: ‘Just as democracy swept through Latin America and the former communist states of East Europe… East Asia too is in the midst of what many are calling a slow but steady move towards pluralism and openness.’

“I was wrong,” he said. “And a lot of what I wrote about has now been reversed in some countries – Thailand for example.”

When Richburg first went to China in 2009, through blogs and Weibo coverage he heard an obscure story about an entrapment operation looking for illegal taxis. So he went to Shanghai and found thousands of people protesting which led to the government backing down.

“I remember thinking ‘something has changed in China’; evidenced by the fact that I could hear about this hundreds of miles away and that the government actually responded to the Weibo pressure,” he said.

This led Richburg to focus on what was happening in China’s online world. “There’s the story of the blogger who looked at official photos where he focused on their wrists to see what watch they were wearing; pricing them and then matching that to officials’ salaries – disciplinary action followed for the officials.” Another blogger did the same for officials carrying handbags and brief cases into the National People’s Congress.

“It was sort of a people’s campaign against corruption,” he said. “I consider this as the free and open Weibo period where people could speak out to power and news could filter through. I thought it was never going to change back again – I was wrong.”

He cited two events in 2011 as having such a profound effect on the Chinese government as to give birth to Internet censorship as we know it today. The Arab Spring, which unfolded on social media as much as it did on an international news level; and the Wenzhou high-speed train crash, which the Chinese government moved to censor as soon as it happened; were two events that led to the government taking a hard line against Internet use.

“This really shook up the regime in China. What I did not anticipate was how effective they would be at this [censorship],” he said of the government’s Great Firewall and the many thousands of people it employs to ensure free speech is stunted, and its own propaganda is spread to “occupy the heights, to occupy this space”.

Richburg thinks his early predictions that the Internet would bring democracy to China and Hong Kong were most likely incorrect because “what’s happening here in Asia does not fit any model that we have had here before. A growing middle class makes countries more democratic was the model I studied. However,  China, and Thailand for that matter, has turned that around, where the new middle class want stability rather than democracy”.

Richburg said that back in 2000, President Clinton said that controlling the Internet would be like nailing Jello to the wall. “The jello is definitely sticking to the wall.”

Sticking to the theme of incorrect predictions, Richburg said that he had believed that incoming president Xi Jinping would usher in an era of less stringent controls on the people of China.

“Another one I got wrong,” he said, adding: “I remember writing that everyone was anticipating that Xi Jinping would be seen as a breath of fresh air. We all thought ‘wow, it’s going to be terrific when Xi Jinping takes over’”. Instead, he said, colleagues were lamenting the era of Hu Jintao.

When asked by an audience member what he thought of the rise of Wikileaks, Richburg said that data dumps still needed journalists to make sense of the information and put it out to the audience. He added that he thought that organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which released the Panama Papers, were the future of journalism. “That is where I think we are heading. That is a model for the future.”

Richburg said that despite being wrong about the Internet in China and the notion that after 1997 it would be Hong Kong who changed China rather than the other way around – with China more interested in pushing One China rather than One Country, Two Systems – “in my defence I would say that I was in good company”.

He said that being naturally an optimist, he saw three grounds for optimism:

First, the level of political interest and engagement in Hong Kong which he hadn’t seen before, particularly the increasing engagement by young people.

Secondly, “I see all these new news websites, blogs and media platforms – not just in Hong Kong. Few are making money, but they are trying and should have our support.”

Third, the students he is teaching. “I am very excited to see so many being excited about journalism, particularly the numbers coming from the mainland – many of whom are journalists who are here to learn best practice in journalism.

“They are the ones who will be telling China’s story. So to arm them with fairness and objectivity for the future makes my decision to change hats [from journalism to academia] worthwhile.”

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