By Gloria Cheung (BJ2014 from JMSC/HKU)
Media around the world are under serious pressure from all sides.
This was the view of Francis Moriarty, Chairman of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club Press Freedom Committee, who moderated a panel discussion on press freedoms in Asia at the June 7-8 New.Now.Next Media Conference at Hong Kong University.
Joining Moriarty were veteran journalists specializing in Asia and a former Hong Kong government official. The event also broadcast an exclusive video message from former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau, who was brutally attacked last February getting out of his car in Hong Kong.
Panelists described the many challenges the media in Asia were facing, not least of which were such basic principles as trying to ensure freedom of speech and journalistic integrity. Chinese economic influence on media operations was another growing concern highlighted by the journalists.
Mike Forsythe, a New York Times Foreign Correspondent, shared his experience being fired by Bloomberg as a result of his investigative reporting on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s family. He said that mixing politics and business is a line that the Chinese government does not want foreign media to cross when it comes to reporting in China. The family assets of Chinese leaders therefore become an especially sensitive topic.
“China is an enormously complicated country. It poses incredible challenges to press freedom around the world,” Forsythe said. “We need to make sure that we, as journalists, are aware of it and push back.”
Joseph Wong, a former senior official with the Hong Kong government and Yin Ting Mak, former Hong Kong Journalism Association Chairperson, also highlight China’s growing economic influence on media freedoms.
According to Wong, news organizations will sometimes kill negative reports about China. “This is because most media owners have extensive business affiliations and investments in China,” he said. “’Guanxi’ (relationships) is a very important thing.”
Advertising revenue from pro-Chinese enterprises is another factor driving self-censorship by media outlets. According to Mak, in 1997, 22% of listed companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange were from China. That figure has now risen to 56% in 2014, he said.
Wong explained that the concern over China’s economic influence did not mean Hong Kongers were opposed to China. “We are not anti-China on principle. We just want to preserve Hong Kong the way it was — freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”
In other parts of Asia, the threats to press freedoms were similarly disturbing. Steve Herman, Bureau Chief of Voice of America Bangkok, described his experience covering the recent coup in Thailand, where the military had intensified threats against the media.
“There’s more press freedom in Myanmar now than in Thailand,” said Herman. “There can be no criticism of the [Thai] royal family.” He said even raising the issue can get journalists in trouble.
Rather than going on the defensive, some of the journalists argued that both the media and the public needed to fight back against government controls and self-censorship.
“It’s not just the government. It’s a problem for us. How should we deal with this and how can we stand up,” urged Mak.
Given that Hong Kong enjoyed more freedoms than mainland China, Forsythe suggested that journalists here take more responsibility to push back. “We need to be very aggressive,” he said. “If you are able to whistle-blow, if you are able to make it public, then you have to do it.”