Press freedom under attack in Hong Kong under national security law

Arrests, limits on press access, journalist visa delays

Photo Credit: 海彥, Voice of America / Public domain

Only weeks after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, the government has invoked the legislation to target the city’s media with the August 10 arrest of Jimmy Lai, publisher of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and four executives of his media company, Next Digital. The arrest was dramatically staged, with Lai questioned by police at dawn at his home, and later perp-walked in handcuffs through his newsroom while 200 police officers searched the premises, seizing 25 boxes of files.

Apple Daily employees live-streamed the newsroom raid despite police warnings to stop filming, per the Washington Post.

Lai’s two sons, who are not involved with the media business, were also arrested at their homes. Lai, a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was charged with “colluding with foreign forces” under the security law. A self-made millionaire and outspoken pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, Lai met last year with U.S. politicians including Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong,” Lai wrote in a New York Times op-ed in May 2020.

The AAJA-Asia chapter condemned the moves against Apple Daily, as well as the arrest of Wilson Li, a freelance journalist for ITV, in a statement saying: “The actions by local police constitute an unprecedented attack on the press freedom that for so long had made Hong Kong a model for the region and world. Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, is one of the few remaining Hong Kong media groups openly critical of the Chinese regime.”

A similar condemnation of the Apple Daily actions from the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club elicited a response from the Chinese foreign ministry claiming that the FCC’s statement “misrepresented the truth, heaped groundless accusations upon the National Security Law and law-enforcement efforts of the Hong Kong police, and tried to whitewash and justify Jimmy Lai and other criminal suspects.” The ministry added that Lai “openly colluded with external forces to endanger national security” and that “freedom of the press” is “safeguarded under the National Security Law.”

Press access limited to “trusted media outlets” only

Further encroachments on press freedoms by the Hong Kong government were revealed during live coverage of the Apple Daily raid, when international news outlets including Reuters, AP and AFP, as well as some local news organizations were denied access to a press area at the scene. Hong Kong police later said the move was part of a new system under which only journalists from “trusted media outlets” are allowed to report from inside cordoned-off areas.

Journalist visas under scrutiny

In addition, the Standard reported that Hong Kong’s Immigration department has set up a new national security unit to vet “sensitive” visa applications, including those for foreign journalists.

The FCC issued a statement opposing the use of journalists’ visas as a weapon in international disputes, adding that delay in issuing new or renewed visas to foreign journalists is “highly unusual,” as Hong Kong has “historically robust press protections.”  

The FCC also stated that several media outlets have reported experiencing delays in obtaining or renewing journalist visas and requested clarification from the director of immigration.