On the morning of November 12thth In 2019, Hong Kong awakened a divided city. The division was hardly new in a region that has seen major unrest since June this year. In the simplest sense, these unrest could be described as a conflict between pan-democratic and establishment-promoting interests. What began as peaceful protests against an extradition bill proposed by the HK government quickly turned into a movement against police brutality. Ultimately, the movement turned into a movement that sought to protect the HK region’s autonomy and define (and in many ways redefine) its relationship with mainland China. It was November 12ththWhen reports of the previous day’s events were circulating, these departments reached a peak. In Sai Wan Ho that morning, a 21-year-old student was shot dead by a police officer. The picture of the shootout went viral. That same morning in Ma On Shan a construction worker was doused with gasoline and set on fire during a verbal confrontation with a group of demonstrators. Two completely different representations of the events of that day emerged in the media, each depicting a different group as antagonists. As explored in this Review, much of the polarization in this reporting can be attributed to the differences between mainstream and alternative media. This paper examines these two types of media in HK and draws attention to the systems of power that influence their reporting. Given the polarization of reporting during the 2019 protests, this essay argues that a rejection of the binary opposition logic used by media organizations will allow observers to more responsibly interpret and consume these apparently contradicting narratives.
Mainstream and alternative media
The arrangement of capital within mainstream media organizations makes them inherently represent institutional interests. Wang (2018, p. 3709) positions mainstream media using a media-ecological framework within broader social, economic and political constraints. Ownership is one of the main restrictions on a media organization’s freedom of reporting and acts as an institutional affiliation to a prescribed power agreement (Wang 2018, p. 3709). In Hong Kong, media ownership is increasingly concentrated in wealthy tycoons with ties to China’s political elite (Wang 2018, p. 3709). Revenue also serves as a similar constraint on journalistic freedoms. Since the handover of HK in 1997, the Chinese government has used its leverage over Chinese-owned or dependent companies to control the flow of funds to media companies. Standard Chartered, HSBC and Hang Seng closed their operations in 2014 on the instructions of the Chinese government’s liaison office Apple Daily after the newspaper published dissenting views (The Economist 2014, p. 40). The HK government also uses its control over information channels to influence reporting. Mainstream media is increasingly not a profitable endeavor in HK, and those who operate in the region rely on subsidized government information and news material (Wang 2018, p. 3714). Media organizations are essentially tricked into avoiding criticism in order to maintain government favor. Since mainstream media operate in an ecosystem tied to capital and political favor, they invariably serve to protect institutional power arrangements.
This institutional power inherent in the mainstream media of HK manifests itself in the form of self-censorship. Lee and Chan (2009, p. 112) define self-censorship as “a series of editorial measures by media organizations that aim to spread favor and not offend those in power”. In 2014, the HK Journalists Association described the previous twelve months as “the darkest for press freedom in several decades” (The Economist 2014, p. 39). In a survey of local journalists, 79% believed that self-censorship among other journalists in the region had increased since 2005, and 36% said they had seen or practiced it themselves (The Economist 2014, p. 39). Such behavior was particularly evident during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. For example, HK’s largest free TV station originally aired a report accusing police of “dragging a protester into a dark corner and punching and kicking him,” but the voice for that segment was quickly changed to report that “officers may” have used excessive force ”(Kwong 2015, p. 285). This increase in self-censorship would ultimately merge with the rise of street politics in HK and fundamentally change the media landscape.
Alternative media emerged in HK to fill a void created by the failure of the mainstream media to represent the increasingly diverse views of the population. If mainstream media are characterized by their attachment to institutional power structures, then alternative media act outside of such constraints and try to actively challenge them. As Wang (2018, p. 3711) writes, “alternative media production collects symbolic resources in order to undermine hegemonic forces and create a space for the cultivation of resistance”. Alternative media often have a rebellious attitude, as Downing (2001, p. Xi) summarizes clearly: “If alternative media have one thing in common, it is that they violate a person’s rules.” This usually takes the form of online broadcasting, underground press, and citizen journalism. These three types of media should be vital during the 2019 protests.
Reporting on protests from 2019
An understanding of mainstream and alternative media in HK helps explain why coverage of the 2019 protests was so polarized. In the broadest sense, the views of the pro-establishment camp were represented by mainstream media organizations, and the views of the pan-democratic movement were represented in alternative media. This is simply a reflection of the origins of each media type. The mainstream media are largely tied to the power structures that the pro-establishment camp seeks to protect. Similarly, alternative media evolved to portray subversive views that would ultimately become the basis of the pan-democratic movement. Now, this essay examines how mainstream and alternative media advanced two very different narratives through the use of language, self-censorship, and selective reporting during the 2019 protests.
One of the most visual ways to polarize coverage of the protests was the language used. The Hong Kong government consistently labeled those who took to the streets “rioters”. This language has been repeated in much of HK’s mainstream media, including the supposedly “neutral” South China Morning Post (SCMP). SCMP’s reporting was certainly more objective than that of its mainstream peers, but even the SCMP had to make language usage decisions – decisions that ultimately revealed editorial preferences. The front page of October 6thth The 2019 edition of the newspaper was headlined, “Lam Calls On The Public To Judge Rioters,” with a line referring to “Immediate Action In The Fight Against Lawlessness” (Chung 2019, p. 1). The language here assumes that the demonstrators are in the minority and do not represent the will of the “general public”. This article was written under the title “Social Unrest”. Similar articles were published in the daily emphasizing the disruptive effects of the protests in one language (Sunday morning post October 6, 2019, p. 3-4). Media in mainland China used even stronger language to position the protesters as antagonists. The government-sponsored Global Times (2019a; 2019b) made frequent references to the “terrorists” and “black terror” that engulfed the city. In contrast, alternative media such as HK Free Press (HKFP), Post 852 and InMediaHK used the terms “demonstrators” and “freedom fighters” and other languages that emphasized the emancipatory and representative character of the movement (Sham-Shackleton 2019). Language usage played a key role in shaping the polarized narratives that emerged from the 2019 protests.
Self-censorship has already been discussed in this article as the primary way in which the power of property is manifested in the mainstream media. Traditionally, the self-censorship enforced by the Chinese state could be marked by a list of three “no” (Kwong 2015, p. 277). Do not talk about the independence of Taiwan or Tibet. Don’t encourage subversion; and don’t offend the leadership. In 2019 this list was expanded to include the protest movement. It was a little difficult for mainstream HK media to completely ignore the existence of street protests, but it was much easier to do across the border in China. Chinese media ignored the protests for a month before finally reporting on their existence in their own ideologically motivated way (BBC 2019). This was important for two reasons. First, there is a lot of movement across the Hong Kong-mainland China border every day. People who consume their news within China’s secluded media ecosystem then come to Hong Kong with similarly narrow views of the unfolding conflict, adding to the street-level divide. Second, some Chinese diaspora use Chinese media networks. This has resulted in shared representations of the protests stretching far beyond China and Hong Kong, leading to confrontations such as those that took place at the University of Queensland in 2019 (Hamilton-Smith 2019). In Hong Kong, China and abroad, the self-censorship practiced by the mass media has contributed to the polarization of the narratives presented in public spaces.
This paper argues that another important contribution to polarizing media narratives in HD has been selective reporting. Selective reporting is similar to self-censorship in that both involve a selective approach to which incidents are to be recognized. The two are different, however, because while self-censorship is practiced to gain favor with higher powers, selective reporting is practiced to advance one’s ideological position. In this sense, both mainstream and alternative media are to blame for such behavior. It would be a mistake to combine the independence of alternative media with neutrality. Due to their development, alternative media have subversive elements (Fuchs 2010, p. 188; Silverstone 1999, p. 103). The line between media and civilians became increasingly blurred in Hong Kong in 2019 as citizen journalism increased (Vukovich 2019, p. 203). This is not intended to mean that journalistic standards are being compromised. Rather, the media are certainly used as an instrument to promote ideological interests.
From a pro-establishment perspective, a narrative was constructed in which Western powers were accused of inciting and violent meddling in Chinese domestic politics. The illustration was made even easier by the American nautical flags that were always seen at street protests. Portraying the protesters as a minority was key to developing this narrative. The portrayal of the police as peacekeepers in a city devastated by violent anarchists was also important. In this narrative, however, there was largely no attempt to meaningfully recognize human rights violations by the police or authorities.
From a pan-democratic perspective, the alternative media narrative positioned peaceful protesters as victims of police violence and constitutional transgression by the Chinese and HK governments. There were many visually striking and confrontational images of street protests and clashes with police that supported this version of events. However, there was no discussion of the demonstrators’ responsibility for acts of violence and destruction. Also absent was the recognition of the xenophobic elements of the protests to which Vukovich (2019, p. 201) alludes.
Reject binary opposition logic
The final part of this essay recognizes the difficulties individuals faced in responsibly consuming and interpreting media coverage of the protests. This paper will suggest a way of constructing events that will help observers reach a conclusion that is least affected by the ideological agendas of other parties. It begins with rejecting the binary oppositional logic, according to which D’Cruz (2020, p. 17) argues that people have been conditioned to interpret the world since early childhood. Indeed, this article is guilty of such behavior by using a pro-establishment / pan-democratic dichotomy. In reality, however, this does not encompass the complexity of the conflict or the full range of interests represented. Such a binary approach allows the media (both mainstream and alternative) to use the most extreme representations of each “side” to categorize their entirety. Obviously, the workers who took part in genuinely peaceful protests during their lunch break were not the same protesters who burned down train stations and destroyed mainland businesses at night. Likewise, not all who condemned the nighttime violence supported the police’s actions, nor were they mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party. In conclusion, if we can reject the binary oppositional logic of media organizations, we can criticize how they use the most extreme representations of the opposition to paint it in its entirety.
This essay examined mainstream and alternative media in Hong Kong, as well as the power systems that influence reporting. It was then considered how this led to a polarization of media coverage during the 2019 protests. Finally, this essay has suggested that an approach that rejects the binary opposition logic of media organizations will help observers develop beliefs least affected by the ideological agendas of others. In the twelve months since the protests peak in 2019, press freedoms in Hong Kong have been further restricted, not least due to the introduction of Hong Kong’s national security law. This law has both threatened alternative media freedoms and made it all the more important in a region where the narratives propagated by the mainstream media increasingly fail to reflect the values of the general population.
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Written To: La Trobe University
Written for: Carol D’Cruz
Date written: October 2020
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