Hong Kong: Citizen News Closes, Monuments Disappear, Speech Prosecutions Continue

2022 is off to a bad start for Hong Kong’s free press. The Cantonese Citizen News, one of the few prominent independent news outlets still standing in Hong Kong, was the latest to perish, announcing its dissolution on Sunday just days after the closure of independent media outlet Stand News. Lau Siu Fung and Raymond Chung from Radio Free Asia described how Citizen News bade farewell to its readers over the weekend:

“Citizen News will cease operations from Jan. 4, 2022,” the site said in a post to its Facebook page at the weekend. “The website will no longer be updated, and will eventually close down entirely.”

“It is with great sadness that we thank all of our subscribers for their support; we will carry your deep love with us, recorded in our memories,” the award-winning platform, crowdfunded in 2017, told its more than 800,000 followers. [Source]

Citizen News chief writer and former Hong Kong Journalists’ Association president Chris Yeung told reporters that “the decision was made within a short period of time. The trigger point was the fate of Stand News.” Hong Kong Free Press described how another major factor in Citizen News’ decision to shut down was uncertainty about whether its reporting had broken any laws under the new national security regime:

“We cannot rule out [the possibility] that our reports or articles in the past few years” have broken laws, Yeung said on Monday.

He added that the outlet had not been approached by law enforcement, but that he heard “directly and indirectly” that online media outlets were being targeted.

[…] “If we continue, we can’t report on the news we want to report. There is no other choice but to stop,” Yeung, formerly the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), said.

[…] [CitizenNews’ chief editor, Daisy] Li, a media veteran who led the online division of Taiwan’s Apple Daily, said she was not confident that she would be able to lead her team of reporters given the shifting red lines in the media environment.

“We cannot grasp whether a story or an article or a sentence contravenes a law under the newly changed environment,” adding that suspending the outlet is the “responsible decision” to make. [Source]

Helen Davidson from the Guardian reported that Citizen News was unwilling to sacrifice the safety of its staff in order to pursue its goal of fearless reporting:

“Regrettably, the rapid changes in society and worsening environment for media make us unable to achieve our goal fearlessly. Amid this crisis, we have to first make sure everyone on the boat is safe,” Citizen News, which was established in 2017, said in a statement.

[…] “Reporting fearlessly means we aren’t afraid of offending the political elite, we criticise the authorities when their policies aren’t right, we don’t shy from covering corporations due to business pressure,” he said, according to local media. “But it doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice our freedom as a price.” [Source]

Founded in 2017, Citizen News ran largely on individual reader subscriptions and donations. Its roughly 40-person team was composed of recent journalism graduates and veterans from other local media outlets, including iCable News thanks to an influx of award-winning journalists after mass layoffs of staff critical of the government. Austin Ramzy from The New York Times described how Citizen News provided a valuable voice for local pro-democracy movements:

Stand News and Citizen News were part of a flourishing media scene that arose covering pro-democracy protest movements in Hong Kong. They carried few advertisements, instead relying on donations. They were built for online readers, often livestreaming protests for hours on end.

When the protest movement was stamped out by widespread arrests and a sweeping security law, they turned their focus to the courts, documenting dozens of criminal cases against protesters and opposition politicians.

Citizen News was founded five years ago by a handful of editors and reporters with long experience at other news outlets in Hong Kong. The company’s small size sometimes meant they couldn’t match the comprehensiveness of larger publications. But they dug into local issues, often delivering scoops on how the authorities were pressing their legal campaign against the opposition.

[…] “They were super-professional in their news analysis, super-rigorous in their fact-checking and also, this is the important part, they were not afraid to speak truth to power,” Mr. Tsui [Lokman Tsui, former journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong,] said. “That’s what’s doing them in right now.” [Source]

Thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the last episode of Citizen News:

Citizen News staff left heartfelt goodbye messages for their viewers and fellow colleagues:

Few media outlets in Hong Kong have remained unscathed since the National Security Law took effect in July 2020. Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has made a gradual slide from watchdog to lapdog. Last June, Apple Daily was forcibly shut down, and last week, Stand News fell victim to the same fate. Now, InMedia Hong Kong is the city’s oldest surviving independent Chinese-language online outlet, with Hong Kong Free Press its most prominent English-language counterpart. Initium, another Chinese-language media outlet in Hong Kong, moved its headquarters to Singapore last August. Some international press in Hong Kong, including The New York Times, have reduced their presence in the city. As one anonymous former Stand News journalist reflected, “Why has the city deteriorated so quickly to the state that even normal media outlets are not allowed to exist?” Journalism professor Yuen Chan similarly told Deutsche Welle:

The Hong Kong government and Beijing’s mouthpieces in Hong Kong have shed no tears at the loss of the city’s independent media outlets. The Global Times cheered the dissolution of Citizen News, claiming that “Citizen News has played a notorious role in instigating social divergence and defying the constitutional order of Hong Kong.” Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung told China News Agency that he was pleased with the arrest of “anti-China agitators” and was particularly impressed with the termination of Apple Daily. Some authorities even clapped back at criticism of Hong Kong’s eroding press freedom. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng stated that foreign criticism of the arrests of Stand News journalists is “in blatant violation of international law.” Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu, the second highest-ranking official in Hong Kong, threatened to “take necessary action” against The Wall Street Journal for a recent editorial decrying the CCP’s authoritarian assault on Hong Kong’s media. 

Last week, behind heavy security and barriers to block media access, Hong Kong police dismantled the Pillar of Shame memorial to the victims of the Tiananmen massacre and removed it from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus. This destruction of memorials has since spread to at least four other universities. A statue and a wall relief of the Goddess of Democracy were removed from Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University, respectively; the administration of City University of Hong Kong announced on Friday that it would remove a statue of the Goddess of Democracy from its own campus; and another statue was previously removed from Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), according to Nikkei Asia. 

On Monday, a new amendment to the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance kicked in, requiring Hong Kong schools to conduct weekly flag-raising ceremonies and banning acts such as inverting the national flag or improperly disposing of it. Local police have assisted schools in training for the ceremonies, some of which will be broadcast to students in classrooms to avoid COVID-related health risks. While the rule applies to primary and secondary schools, local media reported that several universities have also held national flag-raising ceremonies over the past week. Some, including HKU and PolyU, erected flagpoles mere days after removing their memorials. Concerned by these and other changes since the National Security Law, thousands of students have left Hong Kong schools to seek education abroad.

Samuel Chu, founder and president of Campaign for Hong Kong, said that “removing the public statues only reveals the statue-shaped hole in the hearts [and] minds of all of us.” Reflecting on “the fragility of what we and those who came before us had built,” University of Kentucky professor Sharon Yam called for resilience in the new year, and Hongkongers are already heeding the message:

However, citizens continue to be punished for their own commemorations. On Tuesday, Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and former leader of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for inciting an unauthorized assembly in 2021 to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen massacre. Already in jail serving a 12-month sentence for organizing the 2020 Tiananmen vigil, Chow will serve five months of the new sentence concurrently with the old one, giving her a total of 22 months behind bars. Candice Chau from the Hong Kong Free Press described how Chow, representing herself in court, sacrificed her own mitigation plea to share the voices of the Tiananmen massacre victims:

In her mitigation plea on Tuesday, Chow said that while it had only been a little over six months since the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, “June 4th has turned quickly from a baseline of conscience to a dangerous redline.”

“No matter how the court justifies itself…it is participating in the project of washing [away] June 4th,” the barrister said.

The former Alliance vice-chair then said that there was “a need for the court to hear the stories of those who died on June 4th.”

Chow proceeded to read out recollections from three families of victims in the Tiananmen Massacre, but was stopped by Chan before she began reading out a fourth account, as the magistrate said that the court was not a place for “expressions of political demands.”

Upon hearing the magistrate, Chow said that those who died in the Tiananmen Square crackdown were “the real victims in this case,” and that “there was a greater need for their voices to be heard by the court than my own personal mitigation.” [Source]

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