Hong Kong's media last year "gave up its last defenses," making editorial independence in the city a thing of the past, an international press freedom group has said in an annual report.
Media outlets in the former British colony, which was promised the maintenance of its traditional rights and freedoms for 50 years after the 1997 handover to China, "utterly gave up" on any stance independent of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the International Federation of Journalists said on Friday.
"Not only did it end up as the Mainland’s official mouthpiece, but it also took the initiative to patch together lies for the [Chinese] authorities," the report said.
The report comes after a U.S. congressional body said Hong Kong has seen continual erosion of the freedoms and autonomy it was promised by Beijing under the terms of the handover treaty.
"As a result, it is no longer the Fourth Estate, safeguarding justice, but a propaganda tool of the authorities," the IFJ report said, citing "special interviews" granted with detained Hong Kong booksellers held in custody by Chinese police for selling banned political books to mail-order customers across the internal border in mainland China.
Slamming the Hong Kong media for running "confessions" from the booksellers and detained legal assistant Zhao Wei, the group said it was clear who was behind their "access."
"The interviews were tightly controlled and the journalists did not report on the detainees’ whereabouts or physical condition," it said.
"The outlets’ willingness to act as propaganda mouthpieces showed they had surrendered their responsibility to report honestly and defend the public’s right to know."
China tightens grip on media
In mainland China, the government issued a slew of new regulations aimed at tightening controls over foreign-owned media and publishing services, making government approval for content a condition of access to the Chinese market.
"Foreign companies and joint ventures are forbidden to publish information online that would “harm national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, disclose state secrets, endanger social morality or national cultural tradition," the group said.
Meanwhile, the limited diversity that was once on offer in China's media industry was drastically curtailed during 2016, after President Xi Jinping visited top media institutions, calling on all media to work on behalf of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"The authorities took over, suspended or shut down several prestigious mainland media outlets that had provided a special “space” for discussion of sensitive topics, including liberalization and reform," the IFJ report said.
"Through a combination of online controls and offline police actions, they also stifled discussion online and silenced a group of opinion-leading bloggers known as Big Vs," it said.
Beijing also appeared more willing than in previous years to take action against foreign journalists if they reported on sensitive topics.
Ursula Gauthier, Beijing correspondent for French news magazine L’Obs, was forced to leave China after being accused of "offending" the Chinese people after she suggested that repressive policies in Xinjiang may be linked to a string of violent attacks in recent years.
'Very worrying 2016'
IFJ Asia-Pacific spokeswoman Serenade Woo said 2016 was a "very worrying" year for journalism in China.
"One [Causeway Bay bookseller] was actually kidnapped by Chinese agents operating in Hong Kong," Woo said.
She also hit out at Hong Kong media outlets for collaborating with Chinese officials.
"We believe that cooperation with the Chinese authorities is a serious betrayal of professional conduct and erodes confidence in the power of the media to carry out independent monitoring," she said.
Meanwhile, Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said the Hong Kong government had become much less transparent, excluding online media from traditional press briefings.
"It is most unfortunate that the Hong Kong government does not accredit some Hong Kong media for government briefings, and doesn't notify them," Au said.
"The Hong Kong government is lagging behind ... This constitutes an obstacle to freedom of the press," she said.
According to Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, controls on the media by the Chinese government are likely to get still tighter.
"The entire [Chinese] internet is now under government control," Lui said. "The space for freedom of expression has narrowed significantly."
"Where we used to see comments on social events or news on social media or news sites, things have gotten much quieter online," he said.
"Many of the more outspoken people have been silenced."