“Hong Kong's media independence is now in jeopardy”, Reporters Without Borders pointed out in its 2014 World Press Freedom Index. The conclusion echoes the Committee to Protect Journalists’ special report on the practice of self-censorship in Hong Kong, in which Hong Kong legislator Claudia Mo commented:
Self-censorship – it's like the plague, a cancerous growth, multiplying on a daily basis […] In Hong Kong, media organizations are mostly owned by tycoons with business interests in China. They don't want to lose advertising revenue from Chinese companies and they don't want to anger the central government.
In the past ten years, a large number of newspapers columnists, editors, radio and television talk show hosts have been sacked because of their critical stance towards the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. The situation has worsened in the past two years, thanks to the new leadership of Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) adoption of a hardline position on “ideological battle”, which upped the political pressure on media organizations in Hong Kong. The political interference is exercised through replacement of senior news editors and the withdrawal of advertisements by pro-Beijing corporates.
The latest example of the poor state of affairs is Commercial Radio Hong Kong (CRHK), which sacked its most popular radio host, Lee Wai-ling, on February 12, 2014 without providing any reason. Back in November last year, Lee was forced to switch from a morning program to an evening program under the excuse of program improvement. Despite the pressure, she vowed to keep her voice heard over the radio. But now she has been silenced, as depicted by Lam Sui-bun's political cartoon.
Ng Chi-sum, a former phone-in host for Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), whose contract was discontinued in 2011 in spite of his popularity, pointed out that such “program rearrangements” are a kind of political punishment and humiliation. He shared his experience:
我被調到黃昏節目，絕不好過，為了平衡，他們找了幾個極左派來做我的拍檔，每次做完節目，都筋疲力盡 […] 還有向廣管局和電台的投訴攻勢，長官會不時刻意拿給我看，左派報紙一年五、六十篇的大批判文章，卻不聞不問，不發一言，不澄清不辯駁一個字都不回應。這擺明是要羞辱你，等你頂不住而辭職。
Back in 2004, I was switched from the morning to evening phone-in program at RTHK with similar excuses. Hong Kong residents are used to listening to the radio in the morning before they leave home for work. This is the peak hour with the most listeners and thus has the strongest influence [on public opinion]. It is a time slot that everyone wants to compete for. The switch will cut the audience by half and so is a move to reduce your influence. It is a punishment or even a humiliation for the host.
After I was moved to the evening, to balance the pro-Beijing voices of my co-host, I was extremely exhausted. […] In addition, I had to face all manners of complaints and attacks. My boss would hand me the articles written by the pro-Beijing newspapers to me. They published 50-60 articles within one year to discredit me. But my boss never spoke up to defend me. All these gestures are to humiliate you and to force you to resign.
Chan King-fai, a current affair commentator, observed that the political tolerance of the Beijing government has continued to shrink to the extent that even moderate critical voices have to be eliminated:
Miss Lee is not radical. Her style is to raise questions, present insider views and analyze the political situation. When compared with the “hot-tempered” host ten years ago, she is too moderate. The same fate happened to Ng Chi-sum, who is like a gentleman. However, the standard [for censorship] keeps lowering and they have to be eliminated as well.
Blogger “hkcritics” asked what society could do to defend itself:
To address the issue from another angle, even if I [the commercial radio] do not give any explanation, what can you do? This is a sign – regardless of the pressure that the public imposes on the government, it doesn't constitute a threat.
We are being looked down, what else can we do? Siege the government building for 356 days? Join the occupy central campaign? What we see here is a dead end. The thermometer tells us that the frog is no longer in warm water, the water is boiling and the government can do whatever it wants to the frog.
Sacked radio host Lee Wai-ling believed that the incident is political in nature in a press conference on February 13. According to inmediahk.net's Facebook live-cast, Lee believes that:
What happened to her is not a single issue. It is related to the replacement of Ming Pao's chief editor and Hong Kong Economic Journal's political reporter team, the withdrawal of commercial ads from AM730 and Apple Daily. She hope that Hong Kong people would wake up and see what's happening to the society. If they choose to remain silent today, tomorrow they have no choice but remain silent.
While some suggested that online new media can be an alternative to mainstream media, as big corporates start to withdraw advertising from independent news organizations, whether or not the commercial model of local new media initiatives can survive is in question. As for the voluntary based citizen media model, so far very few have had the resources and organizational backup to produce original news and investigative reports. Once Hong Kong's mainstream and conventional media organizations have fallen, the online media will be further ghettoized and marginalized.