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What Happened to Our House: The Assault on Press Freedom in Hong Kong

編按:在這篇原刊於德國 Suddeutsche 週末版(英、德兩語)的文章,Evan 講述主場新聞突然結業,令人更關心香港的新聞自由,以及日益增加的恐懼感。然而,主場新聞突然結業一事,可以看到政治光譜兩端的人也支持主場,令人相當吃驚, Evan 看到了希望:香港能夠團結一致守衛背後共同的價值。我們可能不同意大家的立場,但卻會尊重我們所有的權利去發表言論。
In this piece for Suddeutsche, which was carried in their weekend edition in both English and German, Evan reports on the closure of House News within the context of increasing concerns about press freedom in this city, as well as a growing sense of fear. However, in the reaction to House News closing, in the surprising level of support from both sides of the political spectrum, he also sees hope that Hong Kong can stand united behind a common value: we may disagree, but we respect all our rights to a voice.

Last Saturday House News closed. In the statement announcing it’s closure, Tony Tsoi Tung Ho, one of the founders and the principal driver behind the venture, described a “wave of fear” and a “white terror”. “Not only are Hong Kong’s core values distorted, so too is the market”, he wrote. “In a dysfunctional market, to be a normal citizen and businessman is an error and a fantasy.”

Launched only two years ago, House News quickly established itself as Hong Kong’s most read online serious news site, attracting over 300,000 unique readers daily. I was privileged to be one of the first invited to contribute articles and opinion pieces. Like many Hong Kong people I was proud of House News and of what it represented. In its success I saw the spirit and determination of Hong Kong people to come together as a community in times of need; it was an example of the much feted Hong Kong spirit to find opportunity in adversity and in our ability to fashion our own solutions to those problems that we face.

House News was different from the start. It was not just a business. The last decade has seen a growing feeling, especially among the young and better educated, that Hong Kong’s mainstream media increasingly does not represent the full diversity of perspectives within this city. House News arose from these concerns. 

Hong Kong had once boasted a vibrant and free mainstream media representative of the diverse perspectives and political positions that had and continue to shape this city. Today only Jimmy Lai’s sensationalist Apple Daily has not turned towards the official line. Non-mainstream sources, such as Peoples Radio, are openly and often radically political and suffer accordingly from triad visitation and punitive legal action. Such limited, sensationalist and radical voices reflect a frustration and are easily ridiculed, and can not represent the more considered and legitimate concerns of the majority of Hong Kong people. With the centre hollowed out many in Hong Kong began to seek new and impartial sources for local news.

What has happened to the centre? Hong Kong’s largest television station, TVB, that operates a number of channels in both English and Cantonese, has swung so openly towards Beijing’s line as to be popularly referred to, even among non-political people, as CCTVB. At Commercial Radio, popular broadcaster Li Wei Ling was sacked. High profile and award winning senior journalists at the South China Morning Post have not had their contracts renewed. On leaving the SCMP one of these journalists, Paul Mooney, wrote “for seven months, he (SCMP editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei) had basically blocked me from writing any China stories for the newspaper”. He was not even allowed to keep his journalist accreditation so that he could continue to contribute articles to the paper. There are now no foreign journalists at the China desk.

Earlier this year in a public statement veteran journalist and former mainland detainee Ching Cheong described press freedom in this city as having “never been worse”. In the last year alone former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun To and iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping were attacked by armed men on the streets and in broad daylight. Kevin Lau, who was stabbed repeatedly by a man with a meat cleaver, was already in the spotlight following what many read as his politically driven demotion at Ming Pao. The new editor, Malaysian Chong Tien Siong, has no experience of Hong Kong affairs. “If you consider the entire atmosphere in the industry, the source of that is clear. The source of that, to me, comes directly from across the border,” Ching said.

These types of violent attacks have an added significance for people in Hong Kong, many of whom remember or have grown up on stories of how the “spirit” of the cultural revolution was carried across the border by triad groups. A notable change, never reported in the media but heard on the street, is the fear that Hong Kong is no longer “red” but “black” – that it is not only the Communists that have returned, but also a more politicised form of organised crime.

House News held no position. It was an open platform free of any editorial position. All views were welcome. It also distinguished itself from it’s competitors by the level of transparency it offered, providing clear links to article sources and being open about any form of payment or association the company might have had with contributing articles or reports. As many Hong Kong people, myself included, found personal experience frequently not correlating with what was reported in the mainstream press – as the view from the street, so to speak, became increasingly distant from the headlines and framing of the news – House arose to provide alternative perspectives. These were perspectives not only of paid or professional writers but also of ordinary people.

With the high turn out for the referendum on political reform organised by Occupy Central, there was an expectation at House that pressures may be applied to silence the site. Calling for Beijing to listen to the voices of Hong Kong people when deciding on political reform, Beijing had began to take notice. However, when I last saw Tony, at lunch on the day of the demonstration, there was no indication at all that there would be any problem. If Tony felt fear that day – which I believed he did to a degree – it was, like the finances of House, “manageable and within expectation”.

Two weeks later something changed. I received a message from gmail informing me that my account had been accessed several times from a Mainland site. It was the first time I had received such a message, so I asked for assistance. I was advised to get a new computer, and I understand that the incident was reported to House. 

A few days later at my weekly meeting with an editor at House I was told not to come to the office but to meet instead at a nearby restaurant. As we sat down I was passed a note on a paper. It just said “storm”. I was discouraged from talking freely or to ask questions. What I read included the following words: crackdown, massive, not secure. There were no details.

The manner in which House News has closed raises further questions on free press in this city. It is not unreasonable to conclude that whatever the details and mechanics of the pressures that forced House to close, the level of this pressure was beyond what could have been expected, and was severe enough to force a man as capable as Tony Tsoi to have no option but to close House. This suggests the level of political pressure in operation in this city has been raised. There are new rules now for an old game.

Yet the Hong Kong spirit lives on. Privately I have received messages of support from people on both sides of the political spectrum. The difference between the two positions is less defined by what people believe as how they react to fear – and often those with the most to lose feel fear most acutely. House may have taken content offline, but concerned groups within the community have rebuilt the archive from files saved on personal computers; a temporary blog for House writers has been set-up; and the city is buzzing with talk of a new House. Only time will tell if enough Hong Kong people with the means to rebuild House are prepared and able to face their fears. In a debt driven economy and in a city with the highest inequality in Asia – an inequality that has risen sharply since the Handover – the strings to the purse remain firmly across the border.

What concerns me is the thought that Hong Kong, as a market, a place to do business, and as a community of people may now be open to such a distortion, to practices that would engender such fear, as to undermine the very core upon which this city was built. However, to an influential minority, nothing ever changes as long as it’s business as usual. The glass towers continue to shimmer in the sun, and the respectable papers continue to devote no more than a few lines to the closure of a “pro-democracy online newspaper” that closed as a result of an “unsustainable business model.”

Filed under: Society

About the Author

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Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a writer, essayist and commentator. He has written and been published on a broad range of topics, from art, literature and aesthetic, to social and political commentaries, with a particular focus on issues of culture and identity.

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