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How press freedom in Hong Kong suffocates under China

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

Emboldened by the National Secutiry Law, the authorities in Hong Kong are increasingly cracking down on media outlets and journalists criticising the government. Many in the field now worry that self-censorship will eventually extinguish the independence and integrity of the former British colony's press.

Hundreds of police officers dotted around a building in the east side of Hong Kong at dawn on a hot Thursday in June this year, close to a year after the contentious national security law had been implemented. 

Inside the premises, officers sifted through computers and notebooks of journalists at Apple Daily, a now-closed pro-democracy newspaper in the city. Video producers of Apple Daily did their best to film the office raid, and the arrests of five executives under the national security law, including editor-in-chief Ryan Law. 

That was arguably the largest blow to Hong Kong’s press freedom in the city’s history, and since then, the situation has not improved.

Ellen, a pseudonym used to protect her identity, was a journalist who witnessed pro-democracy protesters offering their support on the day the last Apple Daily edition was published. 

“Hong Kong’s press freedom just dwindles right in front of your eyes,” she told FairPlanet. 

Authorities are now looking into regulations and even laws they can utilise against news outlets. Chief Secretary John Lee said in November that “fake information that’s destructive must be stopped.” 

The former secretary for security  threatened to criminalise such “fake news," but if “the industry has self-discipline and introduces regulations as well as a management or punishment mechanism,” the government might not push a bill.  

Self-censorship will eventually force media in the former British colony to become government mouthpieces, Ellen said. 

“Is it ridiculous to say that all the media here will turn into a government mouthpiece like CCTV? I think they still slowly stop criticising authorities and government figures,” the journalist added. 

The authorities’ move came after the city’s largest pro-democracy protests started in 2019 had sparked deep tensions between the police and protesters. The police have long been dissatisfied with media reports over its brutality, and pin the blame for Hong Kong’s wider fury towards them on journalists. 

Reports of police targeting working journalists at protest sites filled the city’s media at the time, accusing the force of shoving reporters, pulling off their anti-tear gas masks and even detaining one for hours. 

It was not the first time officials mull over a system to control the city’s press. During the police’s first raid of Apple Daily in August last year, the force denied access for journalists from certain media to their usual post-arrest press conferences, including pro-democracy digital media Stand News and foreign wire services. 

A month later, the police halted recognising the credentials issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association and Hong Kong Press Photographers Association. 

Earlier this month, Hong Kong refused to renew the visa of Sue-lin Wong, correspondent of the Economist, reportedly without any explanation. In August, Aaron Mc Nicholas the incoming editor of the independent media platform Hong Kong Free Press - which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its reporting on human rights and protests in Hong Kong - was denied a work visa without any official explanation.

In July last year, the city’s immigration department denied a work permit to New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley, who was forced to leave mainland China for the same reason in 2012. 

“[The government wants] to eradicate any reporting that criticises Beijing in any way,” Ellen said. 

Hong Kong’s press freedom plunged to a record low this year, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association. According to the survey, the decline stems from “the doubt and hesitation when criticising Hong Kong government and the Central government [Beijing], [significant declines] inadequacy of legislative safeguards for journalists’ free access to information, personal safety threats to reporters when covering news, effectiveness of watchdog role played by the local news media and the diversity of viewpoints within local media.”

“Since the government doesn’t really spell out the red lines for the media, we can go to jail anytime for writing anything,” Ellen added. 

Reporters Without Borders put Hong Kong the 80th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries, and called the national security law “especially dangerous” for journalists in the city. 

With Beijing tightening its grip on the city and the looming regulations on journalism, the Hong Kong reporter sees a gloomy future for press freedom here. 

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for journalists here," she said. "If you are hopeful, stay in the industry, but if not, just switch it. It’s not an easy time to be a journalist in Hong Kong." 

Image by Natalia Au.

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
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Ryan Law, editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, is escorted to a Reception Center to be transported for a hearing in Hong Kong, China.
© Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Riot police patrol inside a shopping mall during a protest to mark the one-year anniversary of a mob attack on protesters and subway passengers in Hong Kong, China.
© Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Members of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) wave from a building next to a light installation that reads “Faith”, after the union voted to disband at an emergency general assembly in Hong Kong, China.
© Louise Delmotte/Getty Images