Michael Chan, Francis Lee, and Hsuan-Ting Chen
Chinese University of Hong Kong
The rejection of a Financial Times journalist’s visa renewal application has highlighted continued concerns over press freedom in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, a critical government department report on Hong Kong’s only public broadcaster has raised questions about the organisation’s role and resources amid declining audiences.
The commercial broadcaster TVB continues to dominate free TV and online news. Its efforts to deliver cross-platform media content have been strengthened by the success and profitability of its over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, which reaches half of all households in Hong Kong through its set-top box, mobile app, and online portal. Indeed, the percentage of households owning a set-top TV box has increased from 16% to 43%.1 Sensing this trend and opportunity, pay TV broadcaster i-Cable, which has accumulated losses of more than US$250m in the past decade, has announced plans to offer its own OTT service even though it lacks a substantive online brand presence.
The success of TVB’s OTT business has not prevented the laying off of more than 200 staff, 5% of its workforce, due to continuing challenges for legacy media with falling advertising revenues. Online media have not been spared these difficulties as even HK01.com, which was established in 2016 and has since become a popular online news brand as indicated by this survey, has laid off 70 staff as part of its restructuring. Popular news brand Apple Daily plans to make readers register for its online edition, and there is speculation that this is a precursor to eventually introducing a paywall for its content.
Political influence in Hong Kong’s media came under international scrutiny when Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet’s visa renewal application was denied by the immigration department without explanation. Most observers attributed this to Mallet’s role as the first vice-president of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC) and his chairing of a talk in August 2018 by a fringe political party convener who openly advocates Hong Kong’s independence from China. Indeed, when the event was announced the FCC was criticised by both pro-government politicians and the media for providing a public platform for the calling for Hong Kong independence. Representatives from the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China also sent representatives to dissuade the club from hosting the event, but it eventually went ahead as scheduled.
No reason for the visa denial was given by the immigration department despite requests from the FCC, the Financial Times, and the British government for an explanation. A proposal by pro-democracy lawmakers to summon immigration officials to explain the denial was rejected by pro-government lawmakers who comprise the majority in the legislature.
One notable aspect of the visa denial case was that the news of Chinese government representatives visiting the FCC was broken by the crowdfunded English-language online newspaper Hong Kong Free Press. Founded in 2015 to provide independent news, it has been quite successful in sustaining its operations through public donations, which rose from over US$130,000 in 2016 to US$220,000 in 2017. Despite its early success and inclusion in this survey’s brand list, it does not reach a wide audience (3%), reflecting how English-language news has a very small market in Hong Kong and is still dominated by global brands like the BBC and CNN.
As the only public broadcaster directly funded by the government, Radio Television Hong Kong’s (RTHK) role has been subject to much debate, especially in terms of its editorial independence and ability to fulfil its social obligations. This was exemplified by the controversial FCC talk when management banned news staff from live-streaming the speech because it was likely to advocate Hong Kong independence. The additional task of operating three new TV channels since 2014, along with seven radio channels, has created extra burdens for the broadcaster to generate enough media content. A government audit in 2018 criticised the broadcaster for its lack of original TV programming and repeatedly rerunning the same programmes to fill time.
Despite these challenges, RTHK remains a popular brand for news and ranks the highest in terms of brand trust. Most of its radio and TV podcasts are readily accessible online and through its seven mobile apps, which contributes to the overall popularity of podcasts in Hong Kong.
Consumption habits have changed little over the last few years with television and online remaining main sources of news. The use of social media is slightly down in the last year – mainly due to declines in Facebook usage – while WhatsApp and Instagram continue to grow.
Hong Kong online news consumers trusted the news they personally used much more than the news derived from online search and available through social media. Compared to last year, overall trust in news and trust in the ‘news I use’ remain largely the same, along with trust in search and social media.
- www.nielsen.com/hk/en/insights/news/2018/nielsen-media-index-take-up-of-mobile-first.html ↩