Perspectives October 8, 2020
Hong Kong Press Freedom Suffocates under Beijing’s National Security Law
The government is working to smother a local tradition of independent reporting.
October 8 marks 100 days since the new National Security Law—abruptly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in Beijing—came into effect. In that interval, electoral opportunity, freedoms of expression and assembly, and the rule of law have all deteriorated dramatically in the territory. But one of the most dramatic arenas of decline has been the media landscape.
Several recent moves by the Hong Kong authorities, as well as the general chilling effect of the law itself, represent an unprecedented shift away from the relatively open media environment Hong Kong had enjoyed, particularly when compared with mainland China. As a result, independent journalists face increasing risks.
The following four developments are worth noting:
- A crackdown on Apple Daily: On August 9, Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai—along with four executives from its parent company, Next Digital, and two of Lai’s sons—was arrested under suspicion of violating Article 29 of the National Security Law, which bans collusion with foreign powers. More than 200 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices after the arrests. Both the paper and Lai himself have long been thorns in Beijing’s side, and since the National Security Law came into effect, pressure by the authorities on Apple Daily and Next Digital have escalated. In late August, a network of 40 convenience stores owned by a company with strong business ties to mainland China announced that it would stop selling Apple Daily.
- Self-censorship and fears for personal safety: News outlets are increasingly being forced to self-censor due to threats posed by the National Security Law. On July 6, noted writer Koo Tak Ming ended his column in Apple Daily after more than 30 years, out of concern that its political content could run afoul of the law. Similarly, on July 22, a popular cartoonist announced that his column in Ming Pao had been canceled over its explicit political content following warnings that his work could violate the new security law. There have also been retroactive acts of censorship. On August 13, Ming Pao reported that public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) had removed from their website an interview with Nathan Law after charges were leveled against the activist and former legislator, now in exile, for violations of the national security legislation.
- Police abruptly redefine “media representative”: Hong Kong police announced on September 22 that the designation of “media representative” would be limited to government-registered and “well-known” international agencies, an attempt to replace a system that was based on membership in journalist unions. The implications of a government-issued “media representative” designation are unclear, but the move, which critics claim lacks a basis in law, is expected to sharply constrain the ability of certain journalists to report on current events. Some of the most dramatic images from Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protests—including those of police attacks on protesters—were captured by freelancers who under the new policy will not be recognized by police as journalists.
- Visa denials for foreign journalists: Foreign reporters have also been subject to new restrictions under the National Security Law. In August, immigration authorities refused to issue a visa to an Irish editor of the Hong Kong Free Press, an English-language online outlet that has been an important source of independent reporting for locals and international observers. In July, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley was denied a visa. Also that month, the Times announced that it would shift its Hong Kong–based digital news operations to South Korea. The number of recent visa delays experienced by journalists has been described by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club as “highly unusual.” In response to such assessments, the representative of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong warned the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on September 23 to stop interfering in Hong Kong's affairs.
Signs of resilience
Despite these restrictions, Hong Kong media, including Apple Daily, have continued to engage in independent journalism and commentary that is critical of the government. Indeed, many of the recent developments noted above and other cases of National Security Law enforcement have come to light through courageous reporting by local media. News consumers have also shown their support, with Apple Daily selling hundreds of thousands of copies the morning after its offices were raided.
Looking ahead, the next 100 days will be a critical test for the Hong Kong government and local media. Developments to watch for include: the next stages in the legal case against Jimmy Lai, how police implement the revised “media representative” designations, whether other journalists or media personalities are charged under the security law, and whether any news outlets are forcibly shut down or have their websites blocked. How these dynamics unfold will have a profound effect on what news and information is available to local Hong Kongers, and whether the city is fully swallowed into the mainland Chinese media landscape—or is able to survive with some semblance of press freedom for a while longer.
Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.
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