Sunday, February 16, 2014

Letter to Hong Kong -- February 16, 2014

"Freedom of information is another core advantage that Hong Kong offers businesses. From getting a driving license to checking your Facebook account, reading the daily news or researching potential business partners, Hong Kong is committed to transparent, timely and reliable information", -- including, and I continue to quote, "constitutionally-guaranteed free press and freedom of speech."

This is how Invest Hong Kong, our government's agency tasked with attracting foreign direct investment, has been describing one of Hong Kong's key advantages to potential inward investors on its website. This is how our government describes Hong Kong to our external investors. However, domestically, we see clearly that, our press freedom is clearly under threat.

Just within this past week, two reports painted an increasingly gloomy picture of our media freedom. First, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, non-profit organization based in New York, said that Hong Kong's media freedom is "at a low point," while observing financial pressures and physical threats made against our media, and self-censorship not only among media owners but even among some reporters.

Then, another non-profit organization based in Paris, Reporters Without Borders, also said in its annual press freedom report that our media independence "is now in jeopardy." They even pointed out what they believed is the cause of the problem as "the Chinese Communist Party's growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media."

As if the two recent incidents – being respectively the replacement of Ming Pao's editor despite strong protest by the paper's present and past reporting staff, contributors and readers, and the allegation of vanishing advertisements by the owner of AM730 -- weren't enough, on Wednesday afternoon, one of Hong Kong's most famous radio talk show hosts and also one of the harshest critics of Hong Kong's chief executive and government overall, Li Wei-ling, was sacked without reasons by her employer for more than nine-and-a-half years, Commercial Radio.

Ms Lee said in her press conference on Thursday that she had no doubt, "100 per cent sure," that the CY Leung administration was behind her dismissal, in another move to suppress the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech here. As Commercial Radio will have to enter into negotiations for the renewal of its license in the coming years, and the eventual decision will have to be made by the Chief Executive-in-Council – and we have all seen how the Chief Executive-in-Council had previously turned the recommendation by the Communications Authority upside down in the episode of Hong Kong TV's free terrestrial television license application – such a speculation is not without reasons.

And with the previous allegations by fellow Chief Executive candidate Henry Tang in the 2012 CE election campaign, that Mr Leung in 2003 had actually proposed in the Executive Council to shorten the term of Commercial Radio’s earlier license renewal, also out of retaliation against sharp criticism of the government by its then talk show hosts, one can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. If it could happen before, it is not unreasonable for Commercial Radio to be worried that it may happen again when it comes time for it to renew its license.

OK, it is true that Ms Li has not provided solid incriminating evidence to back up her allegations, yet, but how could she? On the other hand, too many things have happened in too little time, particularly in a year of constitutional reform negotiations and a possible run-up to the Occupy Central campaign. It is totally logical to believe that silencing the media would be of a high priority to the powers that be, whether here locally, or from Beijing.

So we the people of Hong Kong need answers. We need answers from Commercial Radio, why it dismissed Ms Li with no warnings and why it had to do it now. We need answer from the government, which has so far said that this incident was just a private personnel matter in a private company. Oh no, this is a licensed broadcaster using public airwaves, regulated by the government, so the regulator has a duty to the public to get to the bottom of this.

In just a few short days' time, many of my friends have come to me to tell me their concerns about Ms Li's sacking. And don't get me wrong, many of them also told me that they did not particularly like or enjoy Ms Li's abrasive style or tone. They are not her fans, but they treasure her voice and her presence. This is what’s so precious about the core values that Hong Kong people still holds in our own selves – our tolerance and indeed insistence on diversity and free speech. And we know a lie when we see one. And, more importantly, when pressure comes, we stand up.

So, to our friends in the media, hang in there. We know these are difficult times that you are facing, but we are with you, and we need you to guard against self-censorship. Hong Kong needs your independent voice.

A young mother told me a few nights ago, she now fears for her kids' future, a future where people would figure out what they are supposed to think, and just think that way. This would not be her Hong Kong anymore. She asked me to do something. We all have to do something. And let's start by standing up firmly and telling everyone around us that we will do all it takes to defend our press freedom, and our freedom to think. This is going to be a long battle, and this is only the beginning.

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