By Mark Simon
Concerns for press freedom are justifiably at their height when overt repression and violence are used to silence journalists. But as regimes quickly find, overt pressure on a free media will almost certainly bring international condemnation, possible economic sanctions, and unfriendly attention by the international press. In more developed societies, examples today being Russia and Thailand, there is also the very real consideration of internal stability problems that result when there is any action against a respected elite.
Muzzling a pesky free press with the least possible international reaction is a difficult act these days. Yet, in a place long regarded an oasis of free speech in Asia and renowned for its free market and entrepreneurial initiative, the solution may be at hand. In Hong Kong, pro-Beijing forces don’t fight the media, they buy it.
For a regime facing no current threat to its position, the most effective way to control media coverage over the long haul is to allocate capital–whether the state itself does so, or, in the case of Hong Kong, friends of the current government do.
Hong Kong’s free press environment has been altered not by government action, but by the movement into media ownership of “pro-Beijing” tycoons and the use of advertising dollars as the weapon of choice in disciplining non-conforming media outlets. In a perverse twist on Hong Kong’s wonderful free market environment, capital allocation and capital deprivation have come together in the media industry to serve as an effective clamp on dissenting views in Hong Kong.
LIFE SINCE 1997
In the five years since the 1997 handover to Chinese sovereignty there have been no new government restrictions placed on privately owned news organizations. The only real questionable official government infraction against the media was the recent consideration of a “Press Council” with statutory powers. An idea that has died a slow death thanks to public and international business opposition.
Yet, while the private media remains unaffected from direct official action, the same is not true of government media or university press.
Government information sources such as radio and the television station RTHK, which was modeled on the BBC, have become heavily politicized. RTHK remains independent, but there is little doubt that within a few years, and the likely ongoing management and staff changes made in deference to the political desires of the Hong Kong government, the station will resemble the old Soviet PRAVDA more than the BBC.
Academics at local universities have also begun to report that research pointing out any shortcomings of China is unwelcome as a teaching or publishing topic.
THE GOLDEN RULE
The familiar complaint in Hong Kong is self-censorship. Journalists holding back in their reporting rather than risking the wrath of their owners. This line of thought is akin to making the engineer of a train culprit or victim for his train being late because the track ahead is torn up.
Asian business culture is, in most instances, one less rather than more tolerant of dissent by employees. This cultural aversion to conflict with one’s boss, combined with a stated business goal of many of the new tycoon publishers in Hong Kong not to upset the sitting government in Beijing, makes it difficult to see how any dissent reaches the pages of any newspaper or magazine controlled by the pro-Beijing tycoons. In Hong Kong the golden rule of business has transferred to most media outlets. “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
As mentioned previously–with the exception of Apple Daily (my employer), Oriental Daily News, and the small Hong Kong Economic Journal–ownership of media outlets and newspapers has concentrated in the hands of tycoons or families whose sights are set on entering the China market or whose other business activities on the mainland are more significant than their media ventures.
Billionaire tycoon Li Kai Shing, owner of Hong Kong radio station Metro Broadcasting and a major shareholder in media company Tom.com, has multibillion dollar investments in China. Television group TVB has its sights on the mainland as its growth area. Tobacco magnate Charles Ho (owner of the once mighty Sing Tao newspaper) sells cigarettes on the mainland, and the Kouk family (the South China Morning Post owners) holds dozens of major properties, including the mainland Shangri-La Hotel group. Is it any wonder that independent minded reporters and editors have a short life span with these new owners? (See China Brief, vol. 1, no. 4, by former SCMP editor Danny Gittings, “More Malaise”)
Hence the self-censorship argument is not really on target in that it abdicates owners, when in truth it is the policies of these owners to moderate dissenting opinion. Journalists can write anything they want in Hong Kong, whether it makes it to paper is not in their control.
ADVERTISING BOYCOTT REMAINS A THREAT
While there is no sign of any impending official sanctions that would cut down on press freedom in Hong Kong, given the growing dependence of Hong Kong business on the mainland, it would be unwise to consider all smooth sailing ahead. The greatest threat to press freedom in Hong Kong remains financial pressure.
Yes, anyone can establish a publication in Hong Kong. But whether there is any chance of gaining advertising, financial backing or access to certain distribution outlets remains in question.
As Next Media has learned, upsetting the local government or pro-Beijing power elites does entail a financial burden. As recently as two years ago, and this was documented by the Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Wah’s personal assistant Andrew Lo attempted to lead a boycott of Apple Daily by property developers in Hong Kong. Next Media had its public listing fought for four years by pro-Beijing forces and was successful only when international press attention began to take a toll on Hong Kong’s business environment. And, while news stands and independent bookstores remain the largest source of newspapers and magazines, the large chain stores in Hong Kong are owned by large corporations that frown on any political trouble.
As the largest publishing house in Hong Kong, Next Media is in a position to weather such a political storm due to its relationship with multinational advertising clients. Yet smaller and start-up publications seeking an other than academic audience would be shuttered quite easily if the word came from local pro-Beijing forces that businesses supporting a “troublesome” publication would find problems on the mainland.
This politicization of the media business leaves few who are willing to invest in Hong Kong media. It is no surprise Rupert Murdoch dumped the South China Morning Post rather than have to make the editorial compromises required for his entrance into the mainland cable TV market. The hope that new, “free market” owners will enter Hong Kong is at this time not realistic, given the oversupply of newspapers already on the market, the entry of a new subway paper (whose editorial control is subjected to the government owned Mass Transit Railway), and the target for most investment still China.
Ironically, the good news may be found in the land that seems to cause so much dread in the hearts of Hong Kong tycoons. China.
While the use of capital has been used in Hong Kong to subvert much of the local media it is capital which hold’s the greatest promise to reverse the current trend and push forward greater media freedom in all of China. Increased domestic and foreign investment in mainland media will drive competition for readers and viewers. Those new printing presses need to roll off publications people read in order to cover their costs.
While Hong Kong tycoons are pulling back their coverage to satisfy the officials in Beijing, media houses on the mainland are pushing the envelope everyday as they seek market share. It may well be that in the near future, Hong Kong which prides itself as a knowledge resource for China will have a thing or two to learn from the mainland press when it comes to press freedom.
Mark Simon is the director of corporate accounts at the Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second largest Chinese language newspaper.