Trial of prodemocracy activists, foreign tech self-censorship, the Points news outlet launches
In this issue: The Hong Kong Media Bulletin covers the start of the territory’s largest trial of prodemocracy advocates, new rules for public broadcasters to promote the National Security Law, and foreign tech firms’ increasing self-censorship, even as local journalists find ways to push back.
Image of the month: Jimmy Lai documentary
The US-based Acton Institute has produced a documentary on prodemocracy media mogul Jimmy Lai’s lifelong dedication to freedom and confronting the Chinese Communist Party. The Hong Konger seeks to raise awareness about ongoing human rights violations in Hong Kong, declining press freedom, and Lai’s plight as a political prisoner. (Credit: Acton Institute)
Highlights from this issue:
- Largest national security case goes to trial with 16 defendants contesting subversion charges
- Public television and radio stations required to broadcast 30 minutes of content promoting national security education per week
- Apple and Disney self-censor tech products as foreign firms grow increasingly wary of operating in Hong Kong
- Launch of the Points, a 24-hour overseas digital news outlet
Trial of prodemocracy activists, foreign tech self-censorship, the Points news outlet launches
In the past month, Hong Kong reopened to visitors after almost three years, following the mainland’s abrupt ending of the “zero-COVID” policy. A long-awaited trial of 47 prodemocracy activists, journalists, and other members of Hong Kong’s depleted political opposition opened on February 6, with only 16 defendants contesting charges. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) warned that foreign journalists are facing increased barriers to entering Hong Kong, while the government has ordered public television and radio stations to broadcast 30 minutes of content promoting the National Security Law (NSL) per week. In an action reflecting both the deteriorating conditions in Hong Kong and the resilience of the territory’s press corps, a group of journalists from the defunct Apple Daily and other independent media, now scattered around the world, launched the Points, a digital outlet. Other updates on the rule of law and press freedom from the past month include:
Rule of Law
- Democracy advocates tried in Hong Kong’s largest national security case: On February 6, the trial began of 47 prodemocracy lawmakers, activists, and academics arrested in January 2021. The “Hong Kong 47” face subversion charges for organizing or participating in unofficial primary elections held in July 2020. Only 16 defendants are contesting the charges. Most of the defendants have been denied bail and remain in jail, including prominent student activist Joshua Wong and veteran journalist Claudia Mo. Such lengthy pretrial detentions were previously unusual for Hong Kong, but a higher threshold for bail and reduced transparency for national security cases are some of the developments that have raised warnings from international legal experts. Court watchers expressed suspicions that paid queuers linked to progovernment groups are lining up at the courthouse beginning the night before proceedings, in order to prevent the general public from observing the case.
- Sedition charges and case updates: Hong Kongers continue to face prosecution under a colonial-era sedition law that has seen expanded use since 2020. Police arrested six people at a Lunar New Year shopping fair organized by two prodemocracy groups and accused them of producing and publishing a “seditious” book about the 2019 protests. Sedition charges have been applied in at least 63 cases as of December 2022, according to data from ChinaFile. Prosecutors have questioned Chung Pui-kuen, the former editor of the now-shuttered Stand News, for more than 30 days in an ongoing sedition trial that began in October 2022. The defense has called the prosecution’s questioning “endless” and criticized other elements of the trial as violating due process, including the prosecution’s last-minute submission of four boxes of new evidence in early February.
- Increased obstacles for foreign journalists: Immigration authorities questioned the Japanese photographer Michiko Kiseki about a past photo exhibit covering the 2019 prodemocracy protest movement, and ultimately denied her entry to Hong Kong on December 30. The HKJA described Kiseki’s case as “alarming,” and noted that she is the fourth foreign journalist to have been denied entry into the city since 2018.
- New media regulations promote NSL, delist Next Digital: New licensing requirements announced by the government on February 14 mandate that Hong Kong’s three public television stations and two radio broadcasters air at least 30 minutes of weekly programming to promote the 2020 NSL and “national education.” The rules represent ongoing efforts to indoctrinate citizens—especially younger generations—through patriotic education campaigns and follow a rapid dismantling of Hong Kong’s independent public media in early 2021. Separately, on January 12, authorities delisted the media company Next Digital, ostensibly due to its failure to follow guidance set by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Next Digital’s shares were suspended after police raided the company’s headquarters in June 2021. Financial experts have argued that the move was politically motivated; international lawyers for the company’s former owner, Jimmy Lai, who is a British citizen, had met with the UK foreign ministry just days before to discuss ongoing legal cases. Lai is awaiting trial for alleged NSL violations while simultaneously serving sentences for fraud and protest-related convictions.
- Foreign firms proactively increase self-censorship: On December 30, Hong Kong-based users noticed that the “safe browsing” feature on the Apple-owned web browser Safari had temporarily blocked the website GitLab, which has been censored in China. This was evidently the result of Apple’s quiet expansion to Hong Kong Safari users of a website blacklist operated by the Chinese company Tencent. The “safe browsing” feature—which is meant to protect users from sites that could be engaged in malicious behavior like phishing but could also flag websites that the Chinese government disapproves of—sparked privacy concerns when it was implemented in China in 2019; analysts said the feature could transmit user data to Tencent, which is governed by Chinese data security laws. The incident was the latest example of foreign companies applying compliance with Beijing’s censorship regime to Hong Kong. In early February, Disney removed an episode of The Simpsons that referenced “forced labor camps” in China from its Hong Kong streaming services. The company had previously removed another Simpsons episode referencing the Tiananmen Massacre from Disney+ Hong Kong in November 2021.
- Overseas journalists launch a 24-hour online media outlet: In January 2023, a group of journalists who had previously worked at outlets such as Apple Daily, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), i-Cable News, and Next Magazine founded a new digital media outlet called the Points. Its name is derived from the motto, “to seek truth in troubled times and make clear all points [of view].” The outlet seeks to fill a coverage gap left by the rapid demise of independent media in Hong Kong, with journalists reporting from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and Canada. Recent articles covered news items of interest to the growing Hong Kong diaspora, including corruption cases in mainland China, a recent report on human rights in Hong Kong that was submitted to the United Nations, Canadian government disclosures of Chinese state espionage, and an investigation into Hong Kong’s new “High-End Talent” visa program.
- International NGOs submit reports to UN review: The Scottish Hong Kongers, a civil society organization serving diaspora members based in Scotland, submitted a report on human rights violations in Hong Kong after the passing of the 2020 NSL. The group also raised concerns that pro-Beijing groups were attempting to whitewash the situation in Hong Kong and China by flooding the February 15–16 UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) review on China. Researchers noted that none of the organizations providing positive reports on the situation in Hong Kong had filed a submission in the last review—nine years ago— but submitted more than half of the 30 reports on Hong Kong this time around.
- Nobel Peace Prize nominations: The US Congressional-Executive Committee on China has nominated six Hong Kongers including Jimmy Lai, Catholic cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, Gwyneth Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Joshua Wong for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, based on their work championing human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
What to Watch For
- “Hello Hong Kong” tourism campaign: Hong Kong chief executive John Lee has launched a glitzy but widely mocked “Hello Hong Kong” tourism campaign including air travel giveaways, concerts, and new exhibitions. Arrivals to Hong Kong fell by 95 percent from year-end 2019 to 2022, due to harsh pandemic restrictions. Lee and other leaders are trying to convince the world that Hong Kong remains in a position of strength and contradict negative headlines, such as news that the city’s economy shrank by 3.5 percent in 2022. At the same time, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders have signaled their dedication to their ongoing crackdown on media freedom and public dissent. In an interview with the state-backed newspaper Commercial Daily, Lee reiterated his commitment to proposing a controversial “fake news” law and completing a second-draft revision of Article 23 of the territory’s basic law—which mandates the territory to enact its own national security laws—by the end of 2023. Lee cited the existence of hostile “foreign agents” as justification for the necessity of these laws. Watch for the continuing disconnect between Lee’s messaging towards external versus internal audiences, as the city administration works to bolster its hard-hit economy while continuing its crackdown on civil society.
- Government tensions with Oriental Daily and Ming Pao: Even government-friendly news outlets are coming into conflict with the Hong Kong administration’s continuing attacks on freedom of expression. The progovernment Oriental Daily published an online editorial on February 3 titled, “Instead of Reflecting on Their Own Faults, The Police Blamed the Media for Being Biased” after facing criticism over a video commentary on police brutality in Hong Kong. That commentary was prompted by the police shooting of an unarmed man on the island of Peng Chau in January. The February editorial drew a direct line between the shuttering of the “anti-China” Apple Daily and its own frictions with the police, asking, “How is it press freedom if only praise is allowed and criticism is banned?” In early January, Chief Secretary for Administration Eric Chan criticized a comic strip published by Ming Pao as “biased, misleading, and false.” Watch for further verbal attacks on even moderate media criticism by Hong Kong officials and continuing pushback from Hong Kong’s remaining media outlets.
- Outcome of “Hong Kong 47” trial: The trial of the 16 defendants among the “Hong Kong 47” who have pled not guilty is expected to last 90 days, with at least four codefendants testifying against their colleagues and verdicts expected for those who pled guilty, including prominent activists like academic Benny Tai and Joshua Wong. Besides the final punishments meted out, watch for any due process violations during the trial, and the broader impact on the remaining prodemocracy community in Hong Kong.
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