Global press freedom plunges to 12-year low

Local | Amy Nip and AFP 29 Apr 2016

Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years last year, while the Causeway Bay Books incident and acquisition of a Hong Kong newspaper by Alibaba raised concerns, a report by US watchdog Freedom House says.

Press freedom is in danger as political, criminal and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power, the annual report said.

The survey of 199 countries and territories found the percentage of the global population living in areas with a free press was just 13 percent. Freedom House said a big part of the problem was "heightened partisanship and polarization," along with intimidation and attacks against journalists.

Hong Kong scored 39 out of 100 where zero means best and 100 the worst falling into the "partly free" category. But the score was two points lower than a year ago, a slight improvement.

The disappearance of the booksellers, thought to be in the custody of mainland authorities, raised fears that Beijing had disregarded the territory's laws and autonomy, it stated.

The acquisition of the South China Morning Post, announced in December by Alibaba, a mainland Chinese company with strong ties to the central government, deepened concerns about Beijing's growing influence over local news media, it warned.

Tensions eased in the aftermath of the 2014 Occupy protests, during which there were various physical assaults and cyberattacks on the press.

However, the freedoms that residents enjoy continued to be undermined by mainland and local authorities who emphasize Beijing's ultimate sovereignty, it stated.

Meanwhile, eight media unions will protest Monday against the sacking of Ming Pao executive chief editor Keung Kwok-yuen.

The rally, called "Bring Back Gutsy Journalist," is jointly organized by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Hong Kong Press Photographers Association, Independent Commentators Association, Journalism Educators for Press Freedom, International Federation of Journalists, The Foreign Correspondents' Club, RTHK Programme Staff Union, and Next Media Trade Union.

They're calling on the public to join the rally at Chai Wan, saying it's in the public interest to keep "newspaper men with guts" in the industry. Keung, known as his pen name On Yu, was fired on April 20 by the Chinese newspaper.

The company said it was to cut costs, but Ming Pao staff speculated it was linked to Keung's more liberal news judgment compared to editor-in-chief Chong Tien Siong.

HKJA chairwoman Sham Yee-lan said when Chong was appointed chief editor two years ago, Ming Pao staff and media veterans had welcomed him with a silent protest to warn him against harming editorial freedom.

His firing of Keung, described as the pillar of the 57-year-old paper, was a realization of people's fears, she said.

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