FRANCIS MORIARTY: Human Rights and Press Freedom in Hong Kong - A Brief Memoir

In this blog, Francis Moriarty looks back on the rise of worry about press freedom and other rights guaranteed to Hong Kong people. He was the founding chairman of the Press Freedom Committee at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, Hong Kong (FCC), as well as co-founder of the prestigious Human Rights Press Awards, co-sponsored by the FCC, Amnesty International Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Journalists Association. He served as senior political correspondent at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) for 19 years, and is now an independent journalist and columnist for the award-winning Berkshire Eagle newspaper in Pittsfield, Mass.


Shortly before sitting down to write this entry, China published the Beijing Declaration on human rights as adopted by the First South-South Human Rights Forum held in Beijing.

I won’t report on the document here – a quick search turns it up – nor will I comment on its content, other than to say it contains no small encomium to the guiding thought of Xi Jinping in developing the notion of a human rights concept that manages to be both universal and particular, as well as declaring that “the right to development as the primary basic human rights.” (sic) I leave others to judge whether that statement is a continuation of a previous position or something new.

The timing of this declaration offers a chance for me to reflect on why human rights, particularly the right to a free press and free expression, came to be a central concern during my nearly three decades in Hong Kong. It also provides an opportunity to express my worry about the future of those rights as expressed in the the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance (BORO) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a very different document than the one just endorsed in Beijing.

I arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 on the same day (April 15) that pro-reform leader Hu Yaobang died after a heart attack in Beijing. I awoke the next morning to see news of Hu’s death splashed across every newspaper. I was starting work on a newswire and over the weeks that followed our output was dominated by the protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that would lead, eventually, to the bloody military crackdown in which hundreds and probably thousands died.

Although I did not know it then, human rights would turn out to be a central issue of my life in Hong Kong, then a British colony but already destined for return to Chinese sovereignty.

Being the newest guy on the desk, and devoid of Chinese-language skills, I was sent out to cover the demonstrations in Hong Kong. It would prove a life-changing opportunity, giving me the chance to cover the major protests that the Tiananmen events sparked.

Candlelit vigils remembering the Tienanmen Square massacre in HK; Image: Flickr - @VeryBusyPeople

Candlelit vigils remembering the Tienanmen Square massacre in HK; Image: Flickr - @VeryBusyPeople

Early on, I found myself standing at a bend on the Eastern Harbour expressway as a million-plus people slowly marched to the New China News Agency (NCNA, or Xinhua) building on Queen’s Road West, Beijing’s diplomatic headquarters in the city. There were parents carrying tiny infants in their arms, pushing toddlers in prams and helping elderly family members in wheelchairs. They walked in silence. All I could hear were feet shuffling and the occasional cries of babies. It was deeply moving.

On 20 May 1989, martial law was imposed in Beijing by Premier Li Peng. In response, a protest was called in Hong Kong. About 80,000 people responded and marched to the NCNA office during a major typhoon. I was off duty but the NCNA office was close to my Happy Valley flat, so I grabbed a notebook, donned a poncho and walked over under the heaviest rain I had ever seen. Traffic was nonexistent.

When I arrived, soaked through, thousands of people were already there and more were streaming in. There was a group of speakers standing on a platform. Among them were several future legislators, including Cheung Man-kwong, who was speaking into a microphone, and Gary Cheng Kai-nam. Suddenly Cheng -- who would later co-found a pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong – grabbed the microphone and began screaming “Down with Li Peng!” and punching his fist skyward. The crowd immediately joined in.

At one point someone – I think it was labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan – encouraged the throng to remove their hoods and lower their umbrellas to show solidarity with demonstrators in Beijing. Amazingly, they did. As I bent over, trying to keep my notebook dry and take notes, I heard umbrellas popping open above me. I objected but someone said, “No. Please take your notes. We want you to tell our story.” I still treasure that rain-splattered notebook.

This is by way of explaining the general worry about human rights in Hong Kong. It’s also background to a conversation that I had a few years later with Hans Vriens, then president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong (FCC). Hans had led club members in demonstrating outside the High Court after publisher Leung Tin-wei was brutally chopped in his office by two men bearing meat cleavers. Leung nearly lost use of both arms.

As we walked back to the FCC, Hans and I talked about what might happen to press freedom as the 1997 handover drew closer. I asked whether the FCC should perhaps form a press freedom committee to monitor developments. Hans immediately agreed and asked if I would chair it. I said yes, and the committee still exists, working closely with groups like the Hong Kong Journalists Association and Amnesty International.

Our concerns then have become a now-familiar list: ownership changes, shuttering of publications, censorship, self-censorship, physical attacks on journalists and publishers, defamation suits as a means of intimidation, access to information legislation and the need for an archive law.

The events since the 2014 Umbrella Movement add significantly to the level of worry about the range of human rights protections promised in Hong Kong’s BORO. Every institution from schools to courts appears to be under pressure.

The development of the internet and social media have opened new opportunities as well as new problems for press freedom. But they can be addressed if the protected rights continue to include Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the right to impart and receive information – something not specifically included in the just-issued Beijing Declaration.

Hong Kong Watch will monitor press freedom in Hong Kong, raising concerns when violations of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights take place.