Hong Kong Media Comes to Grips with Impact of National Security Law

The arrest of Next Digital publisher Jimmy Lai and the police raid of his Apple Daily offices marked an escalation of the crackdown on Hong Kong’s media freedoms, which entered a new, more active stage after the July 1 implementation of the National Security Law (NSL). For years, Hong Kong journalists have expressed fears that their media freedom was being eroded by Beijing’s encroaching power. For The Guardian, Lily Kuo and Verna Yu report on the current state of the independent media in Hong Kong:

“There used to be a delicate balance in the sense that the state used their ways to maintain a significant degree of control of the press, but it was not complete,” said Francis Lee, director at the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University Hong Kong (CUHK).

“There was a certain way to play the game. Right now the game is changing, They are now really trying to gain tighter control or even try to gain complete control,” he said.

Public broadcaster RTHK, another key outlet for critical coverage, is now under government review after having one of its satirical political shows cancelled in May. The news directors of iCable and NowTV, two major broadcast stations also known for their independent coverage, have recently been replaced.

Foreign media outlets are also likely to come under added pressure as officials float the idea of an accreditation system – a method often used against foreign journalists in mainland China. The Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong has said that several international outlets have experienced long delays in processing visas for journalists. A pro-Beijing paper reported that Hong Kong’s immigration department has set up a new national security unit to review visas. [Source]

When Lai, his sons, and several of his staff were arrested, Hong Kong citizens fired back by buying shares in his Next Digital company en masse, driving up the price more than 1,100%. When he was released on bail and returned to Apple Daily offices, he was greeted by cheers from his staff, whom he told to “fight on.”

Chris Lau of the South China Morning Post reports on Lai’s return to his office and his determination to continue his work:

He told [staff] he was locked in a police cell with a tiny bench. “I couldn’t sleep there because I’m fat. So I lay down on the floor. Sleepless. You can’t really sleep there,” he said in a video clip of the speech seen by the Post.

“I have been thinking that if I knew this was coming, would I stick to what I used to do?” said Lai, a self-made clothing entrepreneur before he ventured into media. “But I think I would not have changed. I would still go down this path.”

Asked on his arrival at the office what would happen to the newspaper, Lai said: “[We shall] continue. Let’s continue. We have the backing of Hongkongers and we should not let them down.”

Apple Daily confirmed on Wednesday that it had sold at least 500,000 copies the day before. Its daily circulation is typically around 70,000. [Source]

According to the BBC, Lai also issued a word of caution to those who continue to protest for democracy in Hong Kong:

However, he warned protesters that they would now have to be “more cautious in our resistance to preserve our rule of law and freedom”, as the sweeping new security law made the environment more dangerous for activists.

“We have to be more careful and creative in [our] resistance… we can’t be as radical as before – especially young people – because the more radical [we are] the shorter lifespan we have in our fighting.

“We have to really use our brain and patience, because this is a long fight.” [Source]

Several Apple Daily journalists told The New York Times’ Tiffany May and Austin Ramzy that they remain concerned about their own safety and that of their sources if they continue reporting in the wake of the raid and under the NSL:

Reporters are worried that sources might get in trouble for speaking with them. The security law looms over everything they do, posing new risks of serious legal penalties for what they publish.

“I worry that through some circumstances outside my control, I’ll be unable to protect my sources,” said Icy Chung, a general assignment reporter. “I worry a day will come when we have to choose between turning ourselves in and turning our sources in.”

In Hong Kong’s newly restrictive environment, the freewheeling publication is both a target and a test case for the government’s authority over the media.

[…] The company organized legal briefings on how to respond if the police raided the newsroom. On Monday night, hours after the raid, the company had sent out a message to all employees with the phone numbers of its lawyers, and guidelines on what information they are not required to give to the police: their home addresses and passwords to their electronic devices. [Source]

Other media have also taken precautions in the wake of the NSL, fearing much of their content could now be considered a national security threat. Article 43 of the law allows police “without a warrant, to require internet-related companies to censor information, provide user identification information, and decrypt messages,” according to a Human Rights Watch analysis of the law. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Steven Butler writes:

The law has a number of provisions that could trip up journalists. It cites four areas of infractions: secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreigners to endanger national security. It’s not clear if reporting on these activities might constitute a crime, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to clarify. “It is not a question of me standing here to give you a guarantee of what you may or may not do in the days and weeks and years ahead,” she told a press conference on July 7, skirting questions about the vagueness of the law. The law makes it a crime to provoke hatred toward the Chinese government. It calls for increased government supervision and regulation of the media, and strengthened “management” of foreign news agencies, without specifying what that means. Police have the right to search any premises, seize and search electronic devices and to conduct surveillance, including communications intercepts, without a court order. [Source]

Rachel Wong at Hong Kong Free Press reports that government-funded broadcaster RTHK recently removed an interview with exiled activist Nathan Law, citing the NSL:

RTHK told Ming Pao that the programme was temporarily unavailable as there had been reports that an interviewee was wanted by Hong Kong police on suspicion of violating the national security law.

There are no laws or regulations which state that the press cannot interview “wanted” activists.

[…] Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on July 31 that Hong Kong police were seeking six pro-democracy figures who are currently overseas, namely Nathan Law, Samuel Chu, Ray Wong, Simon Cheng, Wayne Chan and Honcques Laus.

Police have yet to confirm or deny the report, but RTHK confirmed with HKFP that the material was removed as “[t]he national security law is a piece of new legislation and it is appropriate to handle it cautiously.” [Source]

Christy Leung at South China Morning Post reports on possible new restrictions on visas for foreign correspondents in Hong Kong, as mentioned in the Guardian article above:

In an open letter to immigration director Au Ka-wang, the [Foreign Correspondents Club] said it had come to its attention that a new procedure “may have been established” for processing foreign media visas in Hong Kong.

Citing local press reports, the FCC asked the department to clarify if applications were now being processed by a national security unit led by an immigration officer within the quality migrants and mainland residents’ section. It also asked for an explanation of the criteria being applied to journalist applications.

[…] Last week, the FCC warned that a number of foreign journalists were facing delays in renewing or securing visas in Hong Kong amid growing tensions between China and the United States.

On Tuesday, the Immigration Department told the Post that applications for employment visas were still being handled by its visa control (operations) division. [Source]

The New York Times’ Chris Buckley, whose China visa was not renewed, has also had his Hong Kong visa rejected, according to AFP’s Jerome Taylor:

The New York Times earlier moved several staff from Hong Kong to Seoul following the passage of the NSL.

For more on the challenges Hong Kong media face, see an Atlantic article by Timothy McLaughlin on The South China Morning Post, and responses to Jimmy Lai’s arrest from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. See also a CDT translation of Hong Kong-based journalist Zhang Jieping’s essay, “When fear comes, the first thing to retreat is speech,” about the impact of the NSL.


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