Hong Kong ranks low on global press freedom index as watchdog cites ‘unprecedented’ setbacks

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s 2024 press freedom index. Photo: RSF.

This report was written by Hilary Leung and originally published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on May 3, 2024. An edited version is published below as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

Hong Kong has again ranked low in a global press freedom index, as a watchdog cited an “unprecedented series of setbacks” including newsroom closures and journalist arrests under Beijing’s national security law.

The city placed 135 out of 180 countries and territories in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s annual press freedom ranking, released on Friday to mark World Press Freedom Day.

Sandwiched between the Philippines and South Sudan in the ranking, Hong Kong continued to be among the few developed places to place poorly.

Its press freedom ranking rose five places from last year’s 140. But the free expression NGO said the move was mostly due to changing situations in other territories, and the city’s press freedom score had actually fallen. The watchdog’s Asia-Pacific Bureau Advocacy Officer Aleksandra Bielakowska⁩ told HKFP:

Hong Kong is +5 places [up] but only due to the movement of other countries in the Index. Hong Kong’s score actually has fallen -1.8 points, which is a significant change.

Most major news outlets are owned by pro-establishment groups and independent outlets are subject to political pressure, the watchdog said in their report:

Once a bastion of press freedom, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China has suffered an unprecedented series of setbacks since 2020, when Beijing adopted a National Security Law aimed at silencing independent voices.

In March, authorities fast-tracked a separate homegrown national security law – known as Article 23 – that includes offences such as treason, espionage and theft of state secrets. Secretary for Justice Paul Lam said last week that the media need not be concerned and that criticism of the government was still permitted “no matter how sharp or severe.”

Press freedom under the spotlight

Hong Kong’s press freedom situation has come under the spotlight since Beijing imposed its national security law in June 2020. The legislation followed months of protests against a controversial extradition bill.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai, who founded the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is on trial over charges under the security law of conspiring to collude with foreign forces and conspiring to publish “seditious” material.

Meanwhile, the judiciary said last week that the verdict in the sedition trial of Stand News and two of its former chief editors had been further postponed to the end of August – more than 2.5 years since the arrests in December 2021.

While sedition is not covered by the 2020 national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, the city revived the colonial-era legislation following the 2019 protests after decades of disuse. The law has been used to target “seditious” online posts, and those arrested – like people charged under Beijing’s security law – see less chance of being granted bail.

Apple Daily and Stand News both had their newsrooms raided by police and senior staff apprehended in 2021. The news outlets shut down shortly after that.

HK government: Press freedom respected and protected

Authorities, however, have maintained that press freedom is “respected and protected” in Hong Kong.

The government said last December after international watchdog Media Freedom Coalition said the city’s press freedom was being “continuously attacked” by authorities.

The media can exercise their freedom of the press in accordance with the law. Their freedom of commenting on and criticising government policies remains uninhibited as long as this is not in violation of the law.

HKFP has contacted the authorities about the RSF ranking.

Last month, Bielakowska⁩ – a representative for RSF – was denied entry to Hong Kong after being searched and questioned for six hours at the airport. RSF said the incident marked “a new decline” in the city’s press freedom. Another RSF representative, however, was later allowed in.

FCC statement

Locally, the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club said on May 3 that it was reinforcing its commitment to press freedom “in Hong Kong and around the globe.” The club wrote:

As journalists and media organisations in Hong Kong face rising pressure and uncertainty due to the recent passing of [Article 23], May 3 acts as a reminder for government officials to respect their stated commitment to press freedom.

Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking stood at 18 in 2002, the first year that the RSF published its index. The city’s ranking nosedived in 2022, following the closures of Apple Daily and Stand News.

The watchdog said the drop was the “biggest downfall” of all countries and territories that year. Cedric Alviani, head of RSF’s Taiwan-based East Asia bureau, said:

But it is fully deserved due to the consistent attacks on freedom of the press and the slow disappearance of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

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