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Another major blow to press freedom in Hong Kong

F dS, Y
topics: Freedom of Expression
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China
tags: China, Hong Kong, press freedom, Standnews

In Hong Kong, press freedom continues to erode as pro-democracy journalists and media platforms are being targeted by the authorities.

Just two days after Boxing Day in December last year, the acting editor in chief of the now-shuttered pro-democracy digital media platform Standnews, Patrick Lam, was escorted by a group of uniformed police officers from his home in one of Hong Kong’s high-rise residential buildings. 

That same morning, six other staffers and former board members of the media outlet, which was known for its critical stance on the government, were arrested for an alleged conspiracy to publish seditious materials. This marked yet another massive blow to the city’s deteriorating press freedom, following the forced closure of Hong Kong's largest and oldest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, only four months prior. 

Standnews shuttered its seven-year operation on the same day and deleted all content from its website and social media. 

"Standnews editorial has always been independent and dedicated to defend Hong Kong’s core values including democracy, human rights, freedom, rule of law and justice," the media said in a statement. 

The digital media found itself at odds with the government and police after one of its journalists was attacked, along with other passengers, in July 2019 by white-shirted men at a railway station. The offenders said they needed to "defend their homes” and “teach protesters a lesson." The media outlet has since been lauded by pro-democracy protesters and sparked wariness on the authorities' part. 

The arrests triggered a backlash from western countries. The European Union’s external affairs spokesperson, Peter Stano, called the raid "a further deterioration in press freedom in Hong Kong," in a tweet, while UK Minister of State Amanda Milling condemned the arrests, describing them as an act set to “erode freedom of speech,” in a tweet

One of the arrested board members was singer Denise Ho, who has been outspoken about her anti-government political stance since 2014. She gave talks at the United Nations and the US Congress in which she urged the international community to punish the Hong Kong government for its suppression of the the city's redidents' freedoms.  

Falling like dominoes

Two days after the arrests took place, Citizen News, another pro-democracy online media outlet, announced its closure, citing a "deteriorating media environment." 

"We have loved our city ardently, but now we encounter not only winds and rains, but tornados and tsunamis," the media said in a statement. "We have never forgotten our initial passion, but the changes in the past two years led to a deteriorating media environment. We can no longer achieve our mission without concerns."

The closure of two pro-democracy media platforms sent chills down the spines of the already traumatised press industry members in a city that is collectively struggling to discern where the red lines lie. Working journalist Peter, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said he was still stunned by the shuttering. 

“I knew Standnews was the next target after the shutdown of Apple Daily," Peter told FairPlanet. "Some of the directors resigned just a few months after that incident, which means they did project being arrested. But it still came abruptly, which took me aback." 

Hong Kong’s leader denied that the arrests and closures are related to the city’s press freedom. 

“This morning when I read news saying that because of the closure of an online media organisation, press freedom in Hong Kong faces extinction, or Hong Kong's free press faces collapse, I just could not accept that sort of allegations,” Carrie Lam said in a press conference.

“The rule of law in Hong Kong, and journalists and media organisations, like all of us, have to respect and comply with the law. If they are fearful of not being able to comply with the law, then they have to make up their mind and take the necessary decisions,” she added. 

What counts as seditious?

Ronny Tong, advisor to Lam’s administration, said that the determination as to whether media coverage violates the law or not depends on whether it "intends to promote the criminal intention of fugitives," after denying that the police requested the raid to muzzle out opposition voices. 

The city’s chief secretary and former security leader John Lee sent a scathing letter to Wall Street Journal for its “nasty” editorial on 31 December entitled “No One is Safe in Hong Kong.”

"If you are genuinely interested in press freedom, you should support actions against people who have unlawfully exploited the media as a tool to pursue their political or personal gains," Lee was cited as saying. 

While Peter is not reporting on politics at the moment, he hopes his colleagues can stay strong and urged the remaining ones to avoid self-censorship.

“Journalists should keep doing what we’ve been doing and maintain our professionalism. If we stay strong, other people can’t destroy us easily," he said. "But we’ll lose credibility and trust once we start to self-censor. Doing journalism is always sensitive, even in democracies. We should not be afraid."

Image by Andy Leung

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Sasha Kong
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Workers illuminate mobile phone torches from a balcony at the headquarters of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong, China.
© Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hong Kong online media portal Citizen News announced it will shutter Tuesday, the third pro-democracy outlet to fold in six months as national security police probe journalists in the former British colony.
© Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images