Hong Kong Lays Groundwork for “Fake News” Law

Fears of a looming crackdown are growing in Hong Kong amid escalating efforts by authorities and pro-Beijing media to magnify the issue of “fake news” in the city. In February, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to introduce new laws that would target “doxxing, making hate and discriminatory speech, and disseminating fake news.” Since then, calls for a fake news law have been bolstered by figures including the police chief and pro-Beijing lawmakers and media outlets. But others worry that the introduction of such a law would be accompanied by broader media censorship, especially of highly critical of the government such as Apple Daily, the tabloid owned by jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai.

On Monday, the issue of fake news was brought to the fore again after a number of pro-Beijing newspapers, including state-owned Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, published exposés calling into doubt the story of “K”, a first-aider during the 2019 protests who was allegedly blinded by a bean bag round fired by the police. South China Morning Post’s Kanis Leung reported on the controversy:

After her repeated refusal two years ago to reveal her medical records to police who denied being responsible for her injury, pro-establishment media and politicians in Hong Kong have renewed their claims that she could have faked or exaggerated her case, prompting the Hospital Authority on Tuesday to reject accusations it had been involved in any such .

[…] Protesters claimed she could have been blinded by the incident and used it as an example of alleged police brutality, shouting slogans calling for “an eye for an eye” during a protest at Hong Kong International Airport.

[…] The controversy erupted the day before, when the Oriental Daily News, quoting exclusive sources, said the woman had been spotted leaving for Taiwan on September 30 last year. The report, which carried photographs said to be of K at the city’s international airport, added that her eyes looked “bright” and she appeared “normal”.

[…] Pro-establishment lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, referring to how the injury had deepened protesters’ anger towards the police force and sparked more , said the woman’s case had caused far-reaching harm in Hong Kong and called on the government to set up a law to crack down on fake information. [Source]

The story of “K” is just one bugbear for pro-establishment officials in Hong Kong. Others have focused criticism on media coverage of the 8.31 incident, in which police attacked subway commuters in Prince Edward Station. Some protestors believe that civilians were killed in the station that evening, although no evidence has emerged to substantiate the allegation. The police chief also attacked media outlets for “inciting hatred” following negative coverage of the police’s activities on National Security Education Day, during which children were photographed playing with toy police assault rifles and bazookas. Earlier this month, The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy reported on the police force’s public fake news campaign and anxieties among those in the local media business:

The 12-page magazine, distributed on Wednesday to news outlets including The New York Times, described the police’s efforts to push back against misinformation. In one instance, the department countered rumors that officers had attended a banquet with gang members, saying the police had held their own private dinner. In another, it accused a local television station of smearing the police in a parody show.

“Fake news is highly destructive,” read one graphic carrying the hashtag #youarewhatyousend.

[…] “There is no doubt it is the worst of times,” said Chris Yeung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Mr. Yeung said that the government’s push against what it called fake news was an attempt to avoid accountability for public discontent.

“They will also try to redefine the 2019 protests as something that happened because of misleading information, not because of wrong decisions by the chief executive,” police misconduct or failed policies, he said. [Source]

Most squarely in the crosshairs may be Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper owned by media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is currently in jail for illegal assembly and pending trial for national security charges. Pro-Beijing outlets have repeatedly attacked the newspaper in recent months. Last week, the Hong Kong stock exchange halted trading in the shares of its publisher Next Digital after police froze all of Lai’s assets under the National Security Law, heightening fears about the company’s future. On Sunday, AFP’s Su Xinqi reported on the uncertain future for Apple Daily:

[…] “I am facing the greatest crisis since I took up the post over three years ago,” Apple Daily’s chief editor Ryan Law told AFP, just days before authorities used a new national security law to freeze Lai’s assets, including his media empire shares.

[…] As China’s crackdown gathered pace in the wake of 2019’s huge and often violent democracy protests, mainland authorities made no secret of their desire to see Apple Daily — and its Next Digital parent group — shuttered.

[…] Zoe, a reporter who has been at Apple Daily for more than five years, described a constant weight pressing down on her.

“The morale is rather bad,” she told AFP, asking to use a pseudonym to speak freely.

“It feels like something is approaching us… I worry that some day soon I may not be able to work in the press.” [Source]

But not all newspapers are necessarily under threat. In a sign of how political power has shifted since the passing of the National Security Law, the stories and editorials put out by state-affiliated media outlets in Hong Kong have become increasingly influential. For Hong Kong Free Press, Yuen Chan interviewed Ching Cheong, a former deputy editor at Wen Wei Po, a state-owned newspaper whose recent media campaigns (along with those of fellow state-owned outlet Ta Kung Pao) may indicate the return of influential “mainland mouthpieces” in the city:

Historically, the so-called leftist (pro-Beijing) media in Hong Kong have served two main purposes: to disseminate propaganda and aid united front work. The latter refers to the Chinese Communist Party () practice of winning over and co-opting individuals, networks and groups both inside and outside of China to extend influence and control.

[…] The publications lost market relevance but they continued to be read by those who needed to keep up with political developments as they often carried the first indications of policy decisions by the central government as they related to Hong Kong. This function has become more pronounced since Beijing strengthened its grip on Hong Kong in recent years, and especially after the implementation of the National Security Law.

[…] These attacks have escalated in recent weeks, with Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao publishing multiple pages decrying the proliferation of “fake news” in Hong Kong by pro-democracy “yellow media”, a trend it says was started by Apple Daily. The dailies have amplified calls for legislation to outlaw “fake news” and a Ta Kung Pao opinion piece written by a senior commentator called for Apple Daily to be banned.

[…] Today, Ching sees Beijing using its Hong Kong proxies to “release test balloons” to gauge and hint at policies. And officials and politicians are taking notice. “Does that mean people have to adjust their stances based on their editorials? I don’t know. Maybe we haven’t reached that stage yet,” he says. “But what we can say for sure is that their editorials carry much more weight after the NSL [National Security Law] than before.” […] [Source]

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