Doreen Weisenhaus*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


An anti-corruption agency raids seven newsrooms. The government considers farreaching national security legislation with serious implications for journalists. Covert surveillance and other privacy laws targeting paparazzi and the media are proposed. A broadcaster is admonished for on-air comments. An editor is jailed for contempt of court. These events and others in Hong Kong since the 1997 return of the former British colony to Chinese sovereignty demonstrate the volatility of media law developments in what is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The legal landscape is intricate and everchanging. In Hong Kong, as in other common law jurisdictions, there is no single written set of rules for what comprises media law. Much depends on precedent, custom, equity, statutes and a constitution - And the range of issues can include freedom of expression, defamation, privacy, reporting restrictions, contempt of court, official secrets, access to information, protection of journalistic sources, obscenity, copyright, broadcast regulations and more. Hong Kong's own constitution, the Basic Law, has been in existence only since 1997, with much of it still untested. Hong Kong's judges no longer have to automatically apply British common law to issues that arise; they often still do, but they also have begun to draw from other jurisdictions as well as fashion their own interpretations. Against that backdrop, Hong Kong's media continue to operate in an environment considered one of the world's freest. Hong Kong is the only city in the PRC with a mostly unfettered press. It is one of the largest centres for international media operations in Asia. And it boasts an exceptionally large and rambunctious press with more than a dozen local daily newspapers, hundreds of magazines and a growing number of broadcasting outlets with news departments - for a population of nearly 7 million. The open and robust climate evolved during more than 150 years of British rule, which gave Hong Kong an independent legal system, a freewheeling capitalism that nurtured its teeming media market, and a healthy respect for personal freedom and expression. But British rule also bequeathed a legacy of harsh laws regarding defamation, official secrets, sedition and reporting on court proceedings that make it sometimes hard - And sometimes risky - for journalists to do their jobs. Other issues that complicate media matters in Hong Kong include: • Increased litigiousness that has seen dozens of major court cases, particularly cases involving defamation, since the mid-1990s, against Hong Kong's media; the emergence of large jury awards that has encouraged even more lawsuits, and the unusual propensity of local media companies to sue each other. • Hong Kong government's own attempts at legislation and media regulation, crafted largely under an undemocratic political process. • The growing globalization of media law in such areas as jurisdiction, libel and copyright that affect journalists in Hong Kong. • The big shadow China casts on press freedom, despite the "one country, two systems" principle that governs its relations with Hong Kong - A shadow made darker by the PRC's direct intervention in constitutional matters in the SAR, the mainland conviction of a Hong Kong-based reporter on state secrets and spying allegations in 2006, and anxiety over whatever national security laws that Hong Kong eventually enacts as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law. The political winds that blow in from the mainland are powerful influences upon journalistic attitude and practice in Hong Kong. This has been especially so since the early 1980s, when Chinese and British officials were negotiating and signing the deal that set the timetable for China's resumption of sovereignty, and journalists began publicly voicing concern about the potential impact of the impending handover on press freedoms, especially after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement was crushed in 1989. Still, in the first decade since the handover, no new major laws restricting the press were passed, no media organizations were closed down for political reasons, and no instance of blatant political pressure to stop particular stories occurred. Nonetheless, concern persists both within and beyond Hong Kong over the degree of its press freedom and the eventual outline of its media-law landscape, in part, because of the uncertainty over its developing relationship with the mainland.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHong Kong Media Law
Subtitle of host publicationA Guide for Journalists and Media Professionals
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)9789622098077
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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