Hong Kong’s leader has dismissed fresh concerns over diminishing press freedom in the city following the suspension of annual human rights media awards by a journalists’ group, labelling it and the departure of an outspoken political commentator as “isolated incidents”.
A day after the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) put its annual Human Rights Press Awards on hold, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday attributed the public’s concerns to misunderstandings over the extent constitutional safeguards covered media freedom.
Lam was asked by the Post at her weekly briefing to comment on the state of press freedom following the FCC’s move and the recent departure of Chung Kim-wah, an outspoken political scientist frequently featured in the media.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
She said while they might give the impression press freedom had been undermined, it stemmed from people misconstruing the law.
“I would say that the two examples you have given are isolated incidents, which might have given people that impression, especially people who tend to misunderstand constitutional safeguards for press freedom, that is, one will have to observe the law in exercising your freedom,” she said.
She did not elaborate on whether the FCC would breach any laws if it pressed on with the awards ceremony. Nor did she comment further on the club’s decision, saying it was a private organisation.
Without naming Chung directly, she said he had the right as a Hong Kong resident to travel in and out of the city.
On Monday, FCC president Keith Richburg said the club’s board had reached the “tough decision” to cancel the awards pending further review after a “lengthy discussion” on Saturday.
The decision was made citing “significant areas of uncertainty” for journalists and the need to avoid “unintentionally” breaking the law, but it was questioned by at least three members of the FCC’s press freedom committee who announced their resignations on social media, complaining they had not been consulted.
Concerns over shrinking press freedom have mounted since the closure of Apple Daily and Stand News, two news outlets popular with supporters of the opposition camp.
Police officers from the force’s National Security Department raided their offices and arrested senior management, editors and directors. Some of those currently detained face national security charges, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying.
Earlier this month, police from the department, set up after Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong two years ago, also arrested veteran journalist Allan Au Ka-lun, a teaching consultant at Chinese University’s journalism school, over accusations of conspiracy to publish and reproduce seditious materials. He was released on bail and has not been charged.
The Post has learned the decision was made after Stand News, which Au had written for, was slated to win nine prizes at this year’s event, consisting of four awards and five merits.
Chung, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (Pori), a polling body often berated by the pro-Beijing press, announced on Sunday that he had moved to Britain to live there “for a while”.
He said he could no longer continue his work with ease under “threats from powerful bodies” and fears over crossing “moving red lines”.
“There is no room for sincere words in today’s Hong Kong. It only allows lies,” he wrote on Facebook.
On Tuesday, the chief executive reiterated that press freedom was “one of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law”, the city’s mini-constitution.
“In the last 25 years since reunification, all human rights and freedoms have been safeguarded and upheld in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” she said.
More from South China Morning Post: