Does journalism matter? The answer is Yes

September 28 marked World News Day, a joint initiative by the Canadian Journalism Foundation and World Editors Forum aims to promote the value of fact-based journalism and the message that journalism matters. That could not be a more relevant appeal.

Does journalism matter? Still matter? The answer is and ought to be a resounding yes. With the growing blurring of the lines between truth and half-truths and propaganda masqueraded deliberately or unintentionally as facts, fact-based journalism matters now more than any time in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Sadly, journalism in the city has been shrouded by lingering doubts and anxieties. The air of media freedom is thinning. The ability of journalists to dig out facts and tell the truth in their reports has been weakened in the face of the enforcement of laws on national security and seditious publications, among other measures.

Restrictions over the access of reporters to public data ranging from vehicle license and marriage to property ownership and company directors have hamstrung investigative reporting. The Government argued there is a need to protect the right to privacy in view of doxxing.

Worse, more curbs on the media are in the offing.

A law on misinformation, or what senior officials have conveniently branded as “fake news”, is on the agenda. The Home Affairs Bureau, whose portfolio covers media, is studying how other countries handle misinformation. They are expected to consult the public on what should be done.

The new administration led by Chief Executive John Lee has not yet given a timetable. Indications are that it is one of the must-do tasks.

Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung, who was formerly police commissioner, has emerged as a strong advocate for a law to combat misinformation. Officials blamed the proliferation of “fake news” for the ugly clashes between police and protesters during the 2019 social unrest. The pro-establishment camp thinks alike.

A new law on misinformation seems to be not a question of if, but what and how.

In addition to the legislation on Article 23 that will tackle other crimes not covered in the national security law, a fake news law will add more gloom, if not doom, to the media scene. The depressing mood of journalists has been shown in an annual survey on press freedom by the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The 2021 Press Freedom Index, published in a press release on September 23, is composed of two parts, namely the views of journalists and the public respectively.

The rating of journalists on press freedom dived to a new low of 26.2 points out of 100, down by 5.9 points. The rating in the 2020 index was 32.1 points. The public rating figure was 42 points, the second lowest since the survey was conducted in 2013.

Over 90 percent of the 169 journalists who responded said the Government is one of the sources of curbs on press freedom.

The Government responded in a Ming Pao Daily news report the media environment remains robust as it has been. As long as they abide by the law, a spokesman said journalists can continue to make comments or even criticise the Government.

According to the survey, journalists attributed the worsened scene to the erosion of the diversity of media’s positioning, monitoring function, among others. Journalists also fear more media outlets dare not to criticise the Government.

The index was released one day after Chief Executive John Lee gave an address at a Chinese National Day celebration held by the media sector. Speaking to a group of media invitees holding national flags and Hong Kong SAR flags at a hotel ballroom, Lee called on journalists to deliver the “correct” messages of Hong Kong to the world.

Reporters, he said, should differentiate right from wrong and keep their distance from “fake media” and “bad elements” that “damage press freedom.” He did not name names.

A group of senior executives and editors of the now-malfunctioned Apple Daily and Stand News are facing charges of violations of the national security law and seditious publications ordinance.

In view of the unique role and function of the media, the Government has seldom talked in length about what journalists should or should not do in their public speeches.

While repeating safeguards of press freedoms in the Basic Law, Lee’s speech shows a marked change of focus on what could be interpreted as a propaganda role of Hong Kong media in helping to tell “good Hong Kong stories” and tell them well.

In a subtle departure from the stance of the administration in the pre-colonial era and early years of the Hong Kong SAR, Lee and indeed his predecessor Carrie Lam have rarely mentioned the monitoring role of the media and their role to facilitate the work of journalists.

With the expectation of the power-that-be of the role of media markedly shifted from an independent watchdog to a propaganda apparatus, it came as no surprise that the problem of self-censorship is worsening.

A case in point is a controversy over a question by a now TV reporter at a government press conference in March. The reporter was lambasted by pro-Beijing media for fuelling “public anger.” Now TV has apologised for their reporter having asked authorities how mainland Chinese medics treating local Covid-19 patients will be held accountable in the event of a medical blunder.

Now TV’s news head reportedly scolded the reporter for asking that question, saying Hong Kong should be thankful to the central authorities’ “selfless support.”

Ironically, a similar question has been raised by a pro-Beijing lawmaker to officials at a meeting just days before the press conference.

Local journalists say that is not an isolated case, but a regular feature in the daily operation of newsrooms in the new era.

The ability of journalists to make a difference to people’s lives is the focus of this year’s World News Day.

It is a laudable goal. But it would be difficult to achieve if the authorities are hindering journalists in doing their job – and unreachable if journalists themselves are pulling their own legs, or to put it more bluntly, practising self-censorship.

It will be futile and self-defeating for journalists striving to tell the public good journalism matters if they no longer matter.

▌[At Large] About the Author

Chris Yeung is a veteran journalist, a founder and chief writer of the now-disbanded CitizenNews; he now runs a daily news commentary channel on Youtube. He had formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.