For Hong Kong Journalists, NSL Turns “Red Lines” Into Flashing Red Lights

On Thursday, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released a report titled “Lights Out: Is This the End for Hong Kong’s Media?” The report documents the various ways that the National Security Law and the harsh political climate following its implementation have restrained media freedom in Hong Kong, so much so that the IFJ declared that “the fight for democracy and media freedom has entered its endgame.” The report summarized some of the ominous developments signaling Hong Kong’s transformation into “just another mainland Chinese city”:

  • The 2020 National Security Law, containing vague charges such as “endangering state security” and undefined “red lines”, now effectively acts as a trip wire for all journalists
  • Leading pro-democracy paper Apple News [CDT Editor’s note: Apple Daily] was forced to shut down in 2021 and its founder, Jimmy Lai, remains in jail 
  • One independent publisher closed after its journalists were arrested and another chose to close in its wake to protect its own staff
  • A key Hong Kong news website was moved offshore to preserve its freedom to publish 
  • Public service broadcaster RTHK has been steadily transformed from a strong public broadcaster into a Chinese government mouthpiece 
  • Hong Kong’s news websites are frequently blocked, making it increasingly difficult to get international news 
  • Visas continue to be denied to foreign journalists working for international media trying to enter Hong Kong 
  • Journalists’ sources are intimidated with the threat of being jailed for speaking to the media 
  • Journalists who question the official line are subjected to online harassment 
  • Books, films and visual arts industries increasingly practice self-censorship for fear of crossing invisible “red lines”
  • Civil society organisations, including unions and professional bodies, are frequently required to justify or defend their activities 
  • Access to public information is heavily restricted and criminal penalties have been imposed against those trying to use it 
  • A proposed “fake news law” has the potential to define any critical coverage as “disinformation” [Source]

Two days before the IFJ report was released, a “Media Freedom Coalition” of 21 countries issued a statement condemning the Hong Kong government for undermining press freedom. The coalition members include the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, Japan, and 17 European nations. When asked for a response, a Hong Kong government spokesperson retorted, “We must also point out that the media landscape in Hong Kong is as vibrant as ever.” Robert Delaney from the South China Morning Post detailed the substance of the coalition’s statement:

Citing the recent closures of Hong Kong’s Stand News and Citizen News, the joint statement on Tuesday called moves against some of the city’s media outlets “attacks on freedom of the press” and “suppression of independent local media”.

Beijing’s imposition of a national security law for Hong Kong, which local journalists have said is behind a worsening media environment there, “caused the near-complete disappearance of local independent media outlets” in the city, the statement said.

[…] “These ongoing actions further undermine confidence in Hong Kong’s international reputation through the suppression of human rights, freedom of speech and free flow and exchange of opinions and information,” the statement said.

[…] The brief 21-nation statement also cited China’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration twice, calling the use of the national security law against news outlets a violation of the 1984 treaty that paved the way for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to Beijing. [Source]

In another sign of declining conditions for free press in Hong Kong, Radio Free Asia announced that it would terminate some of its Cantonese-language programs and commentaries beginning on March 1. Hillary Leung at the Hong Kong Free Press reported that the decision was a response to proliferating “national security red lines” that endanger reporters:

“Given the dire situation in Hong Kong, locally based commentators and hosts face increased risks. It has been clear over the past year that the ‘national security red lines’ are everywhere in Hong Kong,” the memo read. “The freedom of speech accorded to commentators and hosts under Hong Kong’s basic law is not protected by Hong Kong and Chinese laws.”

[…] A source familiar with the matter told HKFP that RFA’s top editors made the decision because maintaining a studio in Hong Kong, where hosts and interviewees come and go, could be seen as “high risk” and a potential physical target for authorities.

The commentary section will be taken over by the RFA team abroad, the source added. Its Hong Kong office will remain open to continue reporting the news.

[…] Last year, RFA took the top prize in the Human Rights Press Awards for a piece on tensions between Beijing and the Vatican over the appointment of Chinese bishops. [Source

Pak Yiu from Nikkei Asia described how journalists in Hong Kong, not knowing exactly where the lines are drawn, find themselves in a precarious situation, increasingly vulnerable to prosecution

“I think we, and the industry, have hit a wall, and that’s the reality,” Phoebe said. “I feel mostly helpless.”

[…] “We haven’t changed,” Daisy Li, the chief editor of Citizen News and a respected industry veteran, told reporters on Jan. 3 after publicly announcing the shutdown. “It’s the exterior, objective environment that has changed. As the chief editor, I’m not able to decide whether this story, that reporting or this quote, if published, will violate the law in this changed environment.”

[…] “The news will be very one-sided now. You must side with the central government, and follow their policy. If you don’t, then it’s over for you,” a veteran journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the city’s oldest journalism group, would be targeted next.

[…] “At the moment, everything is quite confusing because we don’t know where the line is,” one journalist said. “The pressure never disappears. Every day you work in this industry you face the pressure of not knowing whether you’ll lose your job or whether you’ll be arrested.” [Source]

Other recent reports by prominent press organizations have documented declining press freedom in both Hong Kong and mainland China. In November, the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club released a survey showing that nearly half of its members had considered leaving the city due to declining press freedom, with 84 percent believing that the working environment for journalism had “changed for the worse.” Earlier this month, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China released its annual report, “Media Freedoms Report 2021: ‘Locked Down or Kicked Out,’” which detailed similar changes in mainland China. In December, Reporters Without Borders released “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China,” a report on the CCP’s repression of the right to information. The Committee to Protect Journalists has also cataloged China’s extensive limitations on reporting during the Olympics

Hong Kong’s judiciary and police drew renewed criticism this month for enabling the government’s crackdown on a free press. Last week, a UK judge sentenced a Hong Kong lawmaker to prison for peacefully protesting during a legislative meeting, adding to a growing trend of foreign judges enabling the city’s judicial crackdown on free expression. Then on Tuesday, a High Court judge dismissed the appeal of American lawyer Samuel Bickett, refusing to overturn his conviction for assaulting a plain-clothes police officer at a metro station in 2019. Bickett’s defense team claimed that he was simply trying to stop the officer, who had brandished a baton and initially did not identify himself as a police officer when asked, from using excessive force against a fare dodger. Shibani Mahtani from the Washington Post described how the judge came to her verdict:

Judge Esther Toh, whom the judiciary has also designated to try Hong Kong’s national security cases, upheld a lower court’s conviction of guilt. She repeatedly pointed to December 2019, when the altercation occurred, as the “height of two years of social disturbances that plagued Hong Kong,” where police were “taunted, maligned and sworn at” by people on the streets. She ruled that Yu, in this circumstance and because the incident happened quickly, acted in the public interest in denying he was a police officer and not producing a warrant card.

[…] Bickett’s attorneys argued that Yu was in violation of the police guidelines on use of force, but the judge dismissed this argument, too, saying that the guidelines were “not relevant” to the case. Hong Kong was in a period of social unrest, she said, and the off-duty officer’s actions were “entirely natural and appropriate.”

[…] During Bickett’s trial and appeal, dozens of members of the public showed up in support. He received stacks of letters while in jail bearing messages of solidarity. In a previous interview, Bickett said he believed his case “doesn’t just represent the destruction of the rule of law, it represents a destruction of values.” [Source]

The treatment of the 47 activists and opposition lawmakers known as the #NSL47 (including many of the territory’s best-known democracy campaigners) continues to be a concern, as well. All are facing charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the national security law for their participation in organizing an unofficial primary election to pick opposition candidates for 2020 legislative elections, which were later postponed. Many of the NSL47 have had their requests for bail denied, and are being held in jail pending trial. The Principal Magistrate has continued to extend their time in custody, stating that more time is needed for pre-trial legal proceedings, on which the media has been prohibited from reporting.


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