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Interview: Bookseller Lam Wing-kee on the decline of Hong Kong's press freedom

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

As the written word comes into focus this fortnight with the HK Book Fair, Dhruv Tikekar and Christy Au-Yeung speaks to Lam Wing-kee, the once-missing bookseller and store manager of Causeway Bay Books, to discuss the extent to which press freedom is being curtailed in our city

The political fallout from Lam Wing-kee’s explosive press conference in June – in which the bookseller claimed to have been detained in China for eight months while authorities tried to extract information from him – caused a sensation in Hong Kong and the Mainland. Whatever the truth to Lam’s claims that he fell foul of Beijing for being involved in the sale of books that embarrassed the Chinese government, the issue has served to reignite the debate surrounding press freedom in Hong Kong and the extent to which citizens still have the ability to publish opinions without suffering censorship from Beijing.

The argument is particularly poignant as it follows in the wake of the latest World Press Freedom Index, commissioned by NGO Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Hong Kong 69th in terms of media independence. In 2002, the SAR was ranked 18th. RWB attributes the decline to issues ranging from media outlet takeovers by ‘Chinese internet companies’ to ‘outspoken’ journalists living under the threat of violence from Chinese Communist Party ‘henchmen’. 

While RWB’s report served notice of Beijing’s permeating influence within local media, it took Lam’s accusations to throw the topic on to front pages throughout Greater China. Speaking to Time Out on the issue of press freedom, Lam begins our interview by explaining the broader implications of his supposed kidnapping and that of four other booksellers late last year, on media independence in the region. “Press freedom has obviously been compromised due to violent actions taken against the bookstore,” he states, “which have directly harmed freedom of speech and academia. [My abduction has] definitely already involved press freedom.” 

Video: Hong Kong Free Press

Freedom of speech, of the press and of publication is protected under Article 27 of the Hong Kong Basic Law and Article 16 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. According to Lam, while the latitude afforded to journalists is de facto determined by the Chinese leadership in Beijing, this should not stop Hongkongers from pushing back. “If they are going to narrow [the Hong Kong people’s] outlet for speech, then all we can do is resist as much as we can,” he says, reaffirming his faith in the Hong Kong ‘spirit of resistance’.

“I can give you an example as to why I’m not worried about local people,” Lam says in response to being asked whether Hong Kong could potentially experience a further curtailment of freedom of expression. “The incident involving me... What I said may not have been entirely truthful. And this was visible for the Hong Kong public to debate,” Lam states, before alleging: “You could see that the Communist Party was using the media to smear my words or my character.” Lam is referring to a televised interview by Mainland outlet Phoenix Television earlier this year, where he claimed to have crossed into China to assist with an investigation. Lam later revealed that the interview had been scripted. “But 80 to 90 percent of what [state media reports] is not credible,” he continues. “People choose to believe what I have said openly at press conferences. What does this illustrate? [That] Hong Kong’s critical faculties remain present and so the Communist Party cannot do much on our soil.”

While in theory there remains an adherence to the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, the recent alleged abductions – beginning with dissident journalist Li Xin’s disappearance from Thailand in January – and the findings of RWB not only speak to the problem of Mainland influence over local media outlets but point to Beijing’s apparent willingness to grow its influence. “This is as expected,” Lam says when we mention the World Press Freedom Index. “[The evaluators] have evidence to back this up. Hong Kong’s press freedom has consistently declined.” The 61-year-old goes on to stress that there is the possibility of improvement if Hongkongers can resist the existing influence that the Mainland exerts over news outlets. 

However, there is no doubt, according to Lam, that ownership of local media outlets by Chinese companies will adversely affect the situation. AliBaba’s acquisition of South China Morning Post late last year raised concern over the media outlet’s continued independence. The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association has expressed its own concerns over the deal, questioning whether the acquisition will result in restrictions on the organisation’s coverage of Mainland topics. “In this regard, their reporting of big issues will face obstacles,” Lam claims. “This is the truth. Hong Kong’s verbal and press reporting [freedom] has been narrowed down.” Despite this pessimistic outlook for the likes of the SCMP – not the only local newspaper with Mainland ownership – the presence of outlets with pro-Beijing leanings or outright support is not something Lam wishes to curtail. “We do not oppose [their opinions] – I do not oppose it,” he explains. “Hong Kong has freedom of speech and if [Communist-backed platforms] say something inaccurate, we have a right to report and debate that.”

Read all about it: The future of press freedom in Hong Kong is a hot topic
Read all about it: The future of press freedom in Hong Kong is a hot topic
Photo by Anthony Wallace/ AFP

While freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, freedom of information – something press freedom is largely contingent on – continues to be a bone of contention between journalists and the government. While the HKJA continues to advocate for legislation that guarantees freedom of information,  the organisation has recognised that the freedoms in question have been ‘the first to feel the effect’ of Mainland influence. Despite this, however, Lam maintains that self-censorship – arguably more corrosive than heavy-handed government actions – is not a serious problem among press outlets. “Self-censorship is definitely kept to a minimum,” he says, countering the suggestion self-censorship had increased in the wake of events like the 2014 attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to. Lau, formerly Ming Pao chief editor, was seriously wounded by an assailant with a cleaver in Sai Wan Ho and the incident was alleged to be linked to press freedom. Lam argues that credibility takes priority for news outlets, as that is usually the element that Hongkongers look for most when seeking news. “The outlets who remain biased in their reporting will find that their credibility becomes tainted,” he tells us. “And when their credibility diminishes, few people will believe their reporting. Hong Kong people can definitely see this. Hence there is little need to worry.” Furthermore, Lam argues, there is no dearth of news organisations from which readers can choose to access information, implying that clamping down on critical outlets would be a futile pursuit. “If there is no more Apple Daily, other [media outlets] will pop up,” he argues.

Despite certain caveats, Lam is consistently upbeat on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong throughout our talk. Reiterating his cry that Hongkongers should not bow down ‘before brute force’, Lam again stresses that the ability to express oneself freely without consequence is not under threat in the SAR. “From what I can see, Hong Kong has not reached such a chaotic atmosphere. There is still space to express,” he tells us. Cautiously optimistic about the future of press freedom in Hong Kong – a future that is largely reliant, some believe, on the will of Hongkongers to actively contest Beijing’s influence over both the transparency and flow of information – Lam indicates that the moral imperative of maintaining a separation of institutions is what is at the core of his beliefs. “Look at this interview,” he says towards the end of our time. “I have no fear that law enforcement will act against me. One cannot be prosecuted for what they say in Hong Kong. Speech is a medium to express thought, to advocate for justice, and not to spread messages of violence. The separation of powers is imperative in this, so there is nothing to fear.”

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