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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Explained: How press freedom is being eroded in Hong Kong

Despite having the right to free speech enshrined in its local constitution, the Chinese territory is now ranked 80th out of 180 countries and regions on the World Press Freedom Index, down from 18th when Reporters Without Borders first published the index in 2002.

By: New York Times |
Updated: June 24, 2021 1:09:42 pm
People queue up to buy last issue of Apple Daily at a newspaper booth in Hong Kong on Thursday. (Photo: AP)

Hong Kong’s raucous and politically diverse news media, though free from the constraints placed on journalism next door in mainland China, has contended with various threats over the years. But after a draconian national security law went into effect a year ago, those challenges have multiplied dramatically.

The growing pressure on the media was underscored on Wednesday when Apple Daily, a pro-democracy tabloid that is often critical of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, said it had no choice but to close. The newspaper, which had been one of the most widely read in Hong Kong, is the subject of a national security investigation that has also imprisoned its founder, Jimmy Lai.

Despite having the right to free speech enshrined in its local constitution, the Chinese territory is now ranked 80th out of 180 countries and regions on the World Press Freedom Index, down from 18th when Reporters Without Borders first published the index in 2002.

“There is no doubt it is the worst of times,” Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told The New York Times last month.

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Here are some of the ways press freedom in Hong Kong is being eroded:

A vague new law

In June 2020, the Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law meant to stamp out opposition to its rule in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Beijing in 1997. The law was enacted after months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong that posed the greatest political challenge to Beijing in decades, with some protesters calling for the territory’s independence.

A police officer holds a banner warning of enforcement of the national security law outside West Kowloon court in Hong Kong. (Photo: New York Times)

While the law is focused on the four crimes of terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces, the vague way it is written has implications for the news media, legal experts say. Hong Kong’s chief of police, Chris Tang, warned earlier this year that the police would investigate news outlets deemed to be endangering national security, citing Apple Daily as an example.

Officials have not provided much clarity on what that means. In comments this week, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, suggested that it was up to journalists themselves to figure out how to avoid breaking the national security law. The law should not affect “normal journalistic work,” she said, though she did not explain what she considered normal.

With no one sure where the lines are, a common response has been self-censorship. Journalists avoid certain topics in interviews, activists have deleted their social media histories and libraries have pulled books by pro-democracy figures off the shelves for review. Activists, academics and others are also less willing to speak openly, a reluctance that was reinforced last month when a judge, explaining why a former lawmaker charged under the national security law had been denied bail, cited comments she had made in interviews as well as in private WhatsApp messages to reporters.

A freewheeling tabloid shut down

In August 2020, police officers arrested Lai under the national security law, as he had predicted in an opinion essay for The Times. Hours later, they raided the offices of Apple Daily, his fiercely pro-democracy newspaper. Some reporters livestreamed video of the raid as officers rifled through their desks. The police also arrested Lai’s two sons and four executives from his company, Next Digital.

Jimmy Lai, 73, the founder of Apple Daily. (Photo: New York Times)

Lai, who had already been arrested over his role in unauthorized protests in 2019, was charged under the national security law with colluding with foreign forces, including by calling for sanctions against Hong Kong. He is already in prison for a total term of 20 months for two protest-related cases, but he still faces additional charges including fraud and three counts under the national security law, which could carry a lifetime prison sentence. (Hong Kong’s first national security trial began Wednesday.)

The August raid now appears to have been just a warm-up. Last week, hundreds of police officers raided the Apple Daily newsroom for a second time, arresting five top executives and editors, seizing journalists’ computers and freezing company accounts. Two of those arrested have been charged under the security law with conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign powers. A senior superintendent in the police’s national security department also warned the public not to share Apple Daily articles online.

Unable to pay its employees with its accounts frozen, Apple Daily said Wednesday that it would close after 26 years. The day had begun with the arrest of the paper’s lead opinion writer, Yeung Ching-kee, who wrote under the pen name Li Ping. China’s Communist Party and its allies in Hong Kong “have decided to strangle Apple Daily, to kill Hong Kong’s freedom of press and freedom of speech,” he wrote after Lai’s arrest last year.

A public broadcaster under pressure

RTHK, a government-funded public broadcaster known for its independent reporting, is being increasingly reined in. In a report early this year, the Hong Kong government accused the broadcaster of lacking transparency and objectivity and said it should be more tightly supervised. Other officials have suggested closing it altogether.

Choy Yuk-ling, center right, a freelance producer for Radio Television Hong Kong arrives at court in Hong Kong. Choy was fined after being found guilty of making false statements to obtain public records. (Photo: New York Times)

A string of senior officials have left RTHK in recent months, including the director of broadcasting, who was replaced by a civil servant with no journalism experience. Since then, the broadcaster has canceled shows, rejected media awards and deleted archival content from its YouTube and Facebook accounts. Lam was given her own show, airing four times a day, to explain changes to electoral laws that critics say all but shut out pro-democracy candidates.

In April, Choy Yuk-ling, a freelance producer for RTHK, was fined after being found guilty of making false statements to obtain public records, in a case the Committee to Protect Journalists called “absurdly disproportionate.” Choy, who had been working on a report critical of the police, said her case showed how officials were trying to restrict access to information that was once publicly available. She is appealing her conviction.

Bureaucratic barriers

Beyond the national security law, there have been smaller policy changes that Hong Kong journalists say could impede their ability to do their work. Some of the changes involve interactions with the police, who had some tense confrontations with journalists during the 2019 protests. Last year, the police said they would recognize journalists’ credentials only if they worked for outlets registered with the government or for prominent international news organizations. Tang also said that access to police operations on the ground should be restricted to “trusted media.”

Separately, the government is set to allow companies to conceal sensitive ownership data, which critics say could make it more difficult to uncover fraud.

Media outlets have also reported delays in the processing of visas for foreign employees, and in a handful of cases they have been denied. The Times cited the national security law and visa disruptions in its decision last summer to relocate some staff members from Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea, though other international news organizations have said they have no plans to leave.

More challenges could be on the way

Lam raised alarms last month when she said the government was exploring legislation against “fake news,” the question being how fake news should be defined and by whom. Similar legislation enacted in Asian countries like Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore has been criticized as a tool for stifling dissent.

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