Is Hong Kong free?

I’ve had many conversations with different people about how Hong Kong has changed since becoming a territory of China in 1997. There are a lot of different camps: Some say the changes have been subtle but significant, others that the changes have actually been surprisingly minimal. Some decry what they see as a cultural shift in the island territory, a dulling of what used to be a vibrant civil society. Many applaud the opportunities being part of China have afforded them, financially and otherwise. Here are points of view in some interesting reports:

Freedom House takes on the question in an appraisal of the media. In their annual report (PDF) on press freedom, released today, they downgraded Hong Kong’s status from “Free” to “Partly Free” for 2008. Here’s how they explain it:

In terms of status changes, Hong Kong’s status declined to Partly Free to reflect the growing influence of Beijing over media and free expression in the territory. Of particular concern were the appointment of 10 owners of Hong Kong media outlets to a mainland Chinese political advisory body, increased restrictions on film releases in the period surrounding the Olympics, and reports that critics of Beijing encountered growing difficulty in gaining access to Hong Kong media platforms.

At the same time, the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal gave Hong Kong its top rank in their annual Index of Economic Freedom which was released in January. They explain:

Hong Kong has an impressive record of openness to global trade and investment. Despite a lack of natural resources, the economy’s institutional strengths have allowed it to achieve high levels of prosperity reinforced by vibrant entrepreneurial activity. The small island is one of the world’s leading financial centers, and regulation of banking and financial services is transparent and efficient. Income and corporate tax rates are very competitive, and overall taxation is relatively small as a percentage of GDP. Business regulation is straightforward, and the labor market is flexible. Property rights are well protected by an independent and corruption-free judiciary.

Anthony Y.H. Fung and Chin-Chuan Lee predicted 15 years ago that integration with China would prove to be a dilemma for Hong Kong’s traditionally free and vibrant press. They introduce a 1994 paper (PDF) in the International Communication Gazette this way:

Hong Kong’s media are undergoing an unprecedented rate of ownership change as the British colony sails toward the transfer of sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. The fate of Hong Kong was decided by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Since then, China has attempted to coopt the Hong Kong media and journalists by conferring prestige, legitimacy, interests, and information upon them. This strategy has reaped unusual success despite temporary setbacks in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In this final phase of the transition, however, foreign corporations have started to raid on Hong Kong’s media, with which they hope to capitalize on a growing market in China. Equally important, China seems intent on managing political effect of the transition through media acquisition by pro-China or China-affiliated capitalists. All these new owners must cope with the dilemma of ingratiating themselves with China without impeding media legitimacy in Hong Kong’s market environment.

legislative building

Hong Kong’s landscape is changing as well. The coastline used to come right up to the edge of the Legislative Council Building (formerly the Supreme Court). 

Thailand news editor faces computer crimes charges

In Jan. 2008, the Computer Crimes Act was about six months away from taking effect in Thailand. It was part of the Internal Security Act, a complicated series of laws that were passed just before the leaders of a military coup held elections to restore democracy to the country. In Bangkok, journalists and web entrepreneurs were worried. Their main concerns were, first, the vagueness of the law, and second, the requirement that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, log web usage. In essence, the ISPs had to be able to report who was doing what and saying what online, but exactly what information was to be logged was unclear.

No one was quite sure how the law would or could be applied, just that it was the kind of law that could be used quite easily for political rather than security purposes. Chiranuch Premchaiporn told me then that this scared her more than Thailand’s infamous lese majeste laws, which accord steep punishments for anyone who insults the King. If she was accused of lese majeste, Premchaiporn said with her ubiquitous smile, at least the King could pardon her.

Premchaiporn is the editor of a pioneering news website, Prachathai. Today, her site reports that she was arrested and then granted bail for violating the Computer Crimes Act. According to the BBC and the Thai daily newspaper The Nation, police officers arrested her on Friday afternoon and confiscated hard drives from Prachathai‘s offices in Bangkok. Premchaiporn’s alleged violation is allowing lese majeste comments to appear on the site in discussion boards. She has reportedly been charged under Article 15 of the Computer Crime Act, which makes it illegal for anyone to support or consent to Internet posts that violate criminal codes or present a threat to national security. She faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

“When the joke became true, [it was] a bit of a shock,” Premchaiporn wrote in an email. “Our lives will go on and this charge won’t stop me from doing what I need to do.”

A series of lese majeste charges filed in recent months have called into question Thailand’s committment to freedom of expression. Two weeks ago, an Australian author was pardoned after spending seven months of a three-year sentence in prison. Political scientist Giles “Ji” Ungpakorn left the country after being charged with lese majeste for his book about the 2006 coup. BBC reporter Jonathan Head (who inicidentally wrote one of the first English-language reports about Premchaiporn’s arrest) is currently facing three charges of lese majeste for comments he allegedly made to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok.

Being charged under the Computer Crimes Act, however, presents different challenges than being charged with lese majeste because it has not yet been applied against individual news reporters. The law has been used so far most often against pornographers and to temporarily shut down websites, including YouTube and Prachathai. Two of Prachathai‘s web board users were arrested and then released in Aug. 2007 for comments they made about Thai royalty, but the government never brought charges against them.

The Asian Human Rights Commission and the Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized the action against Premchaiporn and Prachathai as a threat to free expression.

[See my past entry about Bangkok, the elections and the Computer Crimes Act. For more on the Computer Crimes Act, see Don Sambandaraksa’s Bangkok Post article, reposted by Freedom Against Censorship Thailand.]