Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Media Buckles Under China Pressure

A worrying message is being sent to Hong Kong’s media as pro-democracy journalists and publications continue to be targeted, and experts fear this could have a devastating effect on press freedom in the city.

Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Media Buckles Under China Pressure

An ex-senior reporter for the defunct Apple Daily was apprehended at the airport on Sunday night as he attempted to depart the city, according to a police announcement.

Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Media Buckles Under China Pressure

When the newspaper’s top executives were detained and their assets frozen in accordance with the city’s contentious national security statute, Apple Daily was forced to shut down. Jimmy Lai, a media entrepreneur, was already serving time for many offences when he purchased the company.

Just hours before the arrests were made, the prominent pro-democracy news outlet Stand News announced it would stop publishing editorial pieces out of fear of retaliation.

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One of the few remaining openly pro-democratic magazines in the city is Stand News. It was one of a small number of new internet news outlets to rise to prominence during the pro-democracy rallies of 2019.

Under the terms of the deal that saw Britain return the city to China, Hong Kong ensures its citizens’ right to freedom of the press.

Veteran professionals, however, claim that this is being flagrantly violated by the national security law, which was passed in June 2020 in reaction to years of growing pro-democracy protests. Controversial as it may be, the law makes life in prison an option for those convicted of secession, subversion, or collaborating with foreign troops.

Veteran journalist and former leader of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association Chris Yeung told the BBC, “Press freedom is wilting and buried in uncertainty.”

He also said that the arrests had made journalists even more fearful since the passing of the national security bill. Apple Daily’s demise, he said, “has intensified the chilling impact on the media.”

Apple Daily was the first media organisation to fall victim to the government’s crackdown on protesters and activists, which has been increasingly aggressive in recent months.

Before it shut down in early June, the tabloid-pro-democracy hybrid had become the city’s most prominent voice of protest.

The police claimed that some articles in the daily violated national security laws by, for example, advocating the imposition of sanctions against Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.

Based on media reports, the journalist arrested on Sunday is expected to face charges under the national security statute, just like Apple Daily’s editors and owner Jimmy Lai.

Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said to the BBC, “The Hong Kong authorities’ actions against Apple Daily are absurd and intolerable since they brazenly violate media freedom and regard independent journalism as a crime.”

By demonstrating that critical reporting will be penalised, “China’s officials evidently seek to scare other smaller media outlets and their journalists.”

The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association has demanded an explanation from police following the most recent arrest.

We have Entered the Period of the “Literary Inquisition.”

Stand News, citing the local crisis, said that it would no longer publish commentary pieces and would no longer accept reader sponsorship, a key revenue source.

Stand News cited the national security law as the reason for its decision, saying that it was taking the action to shield its contributors from the impending “literary inquisition” in Hong Kong. The phrase “literary inquisition” is often used in China to describe the persecution of writers and thinkers at various points in China’s imperial past.

Mr. Yeung has stated that the decision by the Stand News is “understandable.” According to pro-Beijing media, “they have been labelled as pro-democracy, for having a critical posture towards the administration.”

After the shutdown of Apple Daily, online media appears to be the next target of the national security law, and this is quite concerning.

Media expert and professor at City University of Hong Kong Chor-yung Cheung agrees, saying, “The arrests have gravely eroded people’s confidence in the protection of free press in Hong Kong.”

He told the BBC, “The national security law has brought a new, more authoritarian paradigm to Hong Kong,” thus he wasn’t shocked by the precautions taken by Stand News.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, declared after the Apple Daily raid that “regular journalistic work” would not be hampered, but did not provide further details. Authorities on the mainland also maintain that the press may continue to function freely and openly.

‘Record low’ in press freedom

Repeatedly, Chinese officials have stated that while media freedoms are generally respected in Hong Kong, they are not absolute.

The police chief of Hong Kong, Raymond Siu, advocated for more media-related legislation over the weekend, saying that he would welcome a fake news law that would allow the police to “bring these people to justice” for spreading false information.

Reporting that “following the implementation of Hong Kong National Security Law, the Government proceeded to oppress the news media,” the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association expressed concern in May that press freedom in the territory had fallen to an all-time low.

According to the research, “as many as 85% of the responding journalists agree with comments that the Hong Kong government is the cause of limiting press freedom,” and “91 percent of the 367 responding journalists believed press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened compared to a year before.”

We should note that this occurred before Apple Daily was shut down.

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Putting the “Hong Kong nails” down

For Mr. Yeung, “the one certainty is that it looks more likely to become worse for an undetermined amount of time before it gets better.” “The national security law has created far more negative repercussions on liberties and way of life than many people had envisioned one year ago,” he added.

Even as they seek “a safer way in the pursuit of independent, free media,” he believes critical voices will grow more cautious.

As an example, after the shutdown of Apple Daily, campaigners rushed to archive the paper’s online content on censorship-proof blockchain platforms to make sure they wouldn’t simply vanish from the web.

Cyber activists had previously used a similar strategy to preserve documentaries by the city’s public broadcaster RTHK, following the latter’s announcement that it would be erasing some of its older content. RTHK had previously been critical of the government, but this has changed since authorities installed new management there.

Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson has stated, “If Xi Jinping and the authoritarians in Beijing have their way, there would be no press freedom left in Hong Kong.”