Library censorship, new social media prosecutions, Photon Media launches
In this issue: Ming Pao’s ends its agreement with a prominent cartoonist, library censorship is exposed, two women face prosecution for social media posts, and legal changes impact acquittals and representation in NSL cases. But artists challenge censorship and a new exile outlet launches in Taiwan.
Image of the month: Empty Library
This image was drawn by prominent satirical cartoonist Wong Kai-Kwan, better known by the pen name Zunzi, on May 12. In early May, the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao ended a long-standing partnership with Wong. Journalists then discovered that his books, drawings, and other “sensitive” items had been removed from public libraries in the territory. The cartoon depicts an old man yawning in an empty library, while others venture to a secret “upstairs bookshop” where banned items can still be purchased. Credit: Zunzi/Hong Kong Democracy Council, Twitter.
Highlights from this issue:
- Legal changes for National Security Law cases
- Local officials use more “CCP speak”
- Student from Japan, housewife face prosecution over social media posts
- New exile outlet Photon Media launches
- Growing pressure on foreign tech firms to remove content
Rule of Law
- Legal changes for National Security Law cases: In late April, the Hong Kong Department of Justice proposed an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Ordinance that would allow prosecutors to appeal an acquittal by High Court judges in cases involving the National Security Law (NSL). The proposal is under review, but could affect the trial of media owner Jimmy Lai, whose case is pending at the High Court. In another rule change affecting Lai’s case, the Hong Kong legislature on May 10 unanimously passed a bill that allows the city’s chief executive to decide whether overseas lawyers can represent clients charged under the NSL. This is the latest phase in an ongoing attempt by Hong Kong government officials to bar Lai from having a foreign lawyer represent him.
- Hong Kong government bars media from event featuring Chinese official: Officials barred several government-registered news outlets from covering an April 15 event associated with National Security Education Day, which was officiated by China’s top representative to Hong Kong Xia Baolong. Among the outlets barred were the digital Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), known for coverage critical of the Hong Kong and Chinese government, and a wire service (which the HKFP report on the incident did not name). Officials then evaded questions when asked to explain the action. On May 2, HKFP reported that a government ombudsman had replied to its complaint and promised to conduct an inquiry into the incident. The April 15 ban was the second time such an incident occurred at an event involving a top Chinese official. Last July, at least 10 outlets from Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, Taiwan, and various European countries were excluded from covering the inauguration of chief executive John Lee.
- Local officials using more “CCP speak”: An analysis published on April 6 by the China Media Project documents a spike in the use by Hong Kong officials of buzzwords similar to propagandistic rhetoric Chinese officials typically use. The researchers found that over the past eight months, since John Lee became chief executive, “the political terminologies of the Chinese Communist Party have increasingly penetrated the language spoken by authorities.” Phrases whose usage has risen include “telling Hong Kong’s story well” (a spin-off of Xi Jinping’s instructions to Chinese state media and propaganda officials to “tell China’s story well”), “profound changes unseen in a century” (which could also be used ironically by critics given the declining freedom in Hong Kong), and, strangely for a financial center like Hong Kong, “targeting poverty alleviation.”
- New study surveys journalists in exile: On April 10, the recently founded Association of Overseas Hong Kong Media Professionals, with support from the International Federation of Journalists, published a report based on over 100 interviews with journalists who had left Hong Kong and are now based in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, or the United States. The findings reflect the high degree of experience many of the journalists have—over one third had at least 21 years of experience in the industry—as well as the challenges they and the Hong Kong media industry face. While 80 percent said they did not regret the decision to leave Hong Kong, over half reported no longer working in the media industry and many said they did not feel comfortable working in a non-Chinese speaking environment. Nevertheless, the study also identified eight media platforms recently established by Hong Kong journalists in exile and 11 YouTube channels.
- Student from Japan, housewife face prosecution over social media posts: Two women are the latest internet users targeted by Hong Kong prosecutors over views shared on social media, including years earlier in and another country. On April 21, news emerged that a student who returned home to Hong Kong from her studies in Japan to renew her identification documents was arrested and charged under the National Security Law for comments made on Facebook from Japan—two years earlier—in which she expressed support for Hong Kong independence. She was released on bail, but her passport has been confiscated, and she is unable to return to Japan to complete her studies. Separately, a housewife in Hong Kong is facing “sedition” charges for Twitter posts in which she criticized police and expressed support for Hong Kong independence. The women join a growing list of prisoners of conscience in the territory, which may now hold more than 1,400 political prisoners, according to some sources.
Academic and Artistic Freedom
- Cartoonist dismissed, library censorship exposed: On May 11, the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao announced that it would be ending a 40-year partnership with prominent satirical cartoonist Wong Kai-Kwan, better known by the pen name Zunzi, effective May 14. The newspaper did not offer an explanation, but several of Wong’s cartoons have been criticized by government officials in recent months. The day after the announcement, local media found that books and illustrations by Wong had disappeared from Hong Kong public library listings. The revelation prompted Hong Kong journalists to check the database for other politically sensitive topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and they discovered dozens of book titles and documentaries missing. Ming Pao reported that over 40 percent of video materials and books on “political themes” had been removed from public libraries since 2020.
- Winnie the Pooh slasher film canceled, digital art installation removed: In late March, the horror film “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” had its scheduled screenings canceled at the last minute, likely because the bear is often used satirically to represent Xi Jinping. According to the US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, this was the 20th case of film censorship in Hong Kong since November 2020. Also removed last month was a digital art installation by US-based artist Patrick Amadon, which included a hidden reference to 47 Hong Kong democracy advocates facing prosecution, and had been on display at a department store.
- New exile outlet Photon Media launches: A group of journalists from Hong Kong, now based in Taiwan launched an online digital news outlet named Photon Media last month. In an April 11 post on their Facebook page, the founders explain that their goal is to “bring news about Hong Kong out of Hong Kong, and also to bring overseas information back to Hong Kong [readers],” and that they chose the name Photon because “In the darkness [of closing space for journalism in the territory], we hope to shine a light.” The new platform joins a growing list of media initiatives among the diaspora to provide independent news about Hong Kong and for Hong Kongers.
- Artists tackle censorship, journalism, memories of past protests: In Hong Kong, an exhibit by mainland artist Wang Tuo opened in late March, featuring subjects that test the local authorities’ red lines. Paintings depict underground poets and writers in China, a reference to the White Paper protest movement, and a video that includes an imagined discussion between an artist and government censor. And as controls in Hong Kong tighten, five Hong Kongers living in Canada collaborated on an exhibit opening this month that seeks to document and commemorate the mass prodemocracy protests that occurred in 2019.
- University of Toronto protest archive improves functionality: On March 2023, the Richard Charles Lee Canada Hong Kong Library, which hosts an archive of webpages on protests in Hong Kong dating back to 2014, announced that it had recently improved its searchability functions. The archive includes video clips and images, while the library hosts other content that has become more difficult to access under expanding censorship, such as datasets and research reports from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.
What to Watch For
- Tiananmen Massacre anniversary arrests, censorship: With the approach of June 4, the 34th anniversary of a brutal military crackdown on 1989 prodemocracy protests in China, watch for arrests of activists or internet users who try to commemorate the occasion in Hong Kong or examples of censorship or self-censorship surrounding the sensitive date.
- Hong Kong police technology and surveillance upgrade: Hong Kong’s security minister told legislators on April 4 that as the police seek to upgrade their communications and data-storing systems, they may look to mainland Chinese suppliers out of “national security concerns” and to avoid future disruptions due to foreign sanctions. The planned upgrades are estimated to cost HK$5.78 billion (US$738 million). Watch for further details on police surveillance or data-processing technology purchased by Hong Kong authorities from Chinese counterparts, and their human rights implications.
- Increased pressure on foreign tech firms to remove content: A transparency report published by Google in early 2023 disclosed that Hong Kong authorities had asked the tech giant to remove 183 items—mostly from YouTube—during the second half of 2022, including dozens claimed to be related to national security, a surge compared to the number of requests generally and related to national security in 2021. The company reportedly refused 48.1 percent of requests but complied with 30 percent, including cases involving impersonation or fraud. Watch for other instances of increased demands by the Hong Kong government, especially the police, for content removals from global social media platforms.
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