Journalism has increasingly come under attack throughout Asia during the past year, including in Myanmar and the Philippines, but the shockingly swift crackdown on press freedom in Hong Kong has generated the greatest outcry around the world. With the imposition of the National Security law in July 2020 curtailing – and in some cases criminalizing — free speech, Hong Kong’s longtime status as Asia’s media hub is officially over.
iCable, RTHK muzzled; visas & press credentials denied
Incidents of erosion of press freedom since the NSL was enacted include the gutting of iCable TV, in which 40 staff members were fired, including the award-winning investigative team of the program News Lancet, known for covering sensitive topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Numerous other journalists and editors resigned in protest of the December layoffs. iCable management is now perceived as pro-Beijing after top-level personnel changes at the station a few years prior.
Reporting at government-run broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which has covered subjects like China’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang, has been hobbled, with reporters told that political stories are not allowed. A long-running satirical show that poked fun at the police was terminated abruptly, and an award-winning journalist who produced a documentary about how police failed to respond when a mob attacked protesters in a train station was arrested and fined. RTHK unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw that documentary from competition in the Human Rights Press Awards, and declined the award when it won.
Other troubling signs of repression include delays in processing visas for foreign journalists, with some denied visas entirely, which had never occurred in Hong Kong before. Police tightened media credential rules, and the government introduced a plan to restrict access to business registry data, a tool used by investigative journalists to uncover malpractice and corruption.
Speaking with foreign media outlets can be illegal
The NSL restrictions have been applied in a random fashion, with no clear guidelines as to what falls outside the law. One example is the case of former Hong Kong legislator Claudia Mo, who stepped down from the Legislative Council in November 2020 when all of the city’s pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en-masse after Beijing forced the removal of four of their colleagues. Arrested in January along with 46 other pro-democracy activists, Mo was denied bail based on WhatsApp messages she exchanged with reporters from the BBC, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In other words, speaking with foreign media outlets – quite common for legislators – may now be considered illegal. This is the reason we chose to eschew original reporting for this piece. Mo remained in prison as we went to press.
“Finding myself in that familiar and depressing scenario now in Hong Kong where most of the people I would like to speak to about the government are in prison or effectively silenced,” Taiwan-based journalist Erin Hale tweeted in mid-July.
Apple Daily shuttered: “watershed moment”
By far the highest profile case was that of Apple Daily, a newspaper whose offices were raided by hundreds of police officers – twice – and its founder, media mogul Jimmy Lai, and other executives were arrested. In the most recent case, in June 2021, 500 officers raided the premises, seizing hard drives and records, and freezing assets of parent company Next Digital, forcing the paper to shut down after 26 years. Days later, a former senior Apple Daily editor was arrested at Hong Kong’s airport as he was waiting to board a flight to the U.K.
The Apple Daily raid and arrests were a “watershed moment” for the press in Hong Kong, wrote Jerome Taylor, AFP’s Hong Kong/Taiwan/Macau bureau chief. The incident marked the first time that articles published in Hong Kong sparked arrests under the new law. “For reporters and publishers in the city, the message was clear: what one writes or prints could lead to a knock on the door from the national security police,” Taylor said. AFP also notes that international media outlets are wondering if they have a future in Hong Kong, as journalist visas are taking longer to obtain, and Beijing officials and state media have increasingly denounced western media coverage.
New York Times officially makes Seoul its Asian hub
In fact, the New York Times has already relocated some of its Hong Kong staff to Seoul, and an executive stated that the South Korean capital will become its Asian hub, a direct result of the NSL. “Seoul will become our Asia center, our Asia hub,” Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, international president of The New York Times Company, said in an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily.
The Apple Daily case drew criticism around the globe. The U.S. Department of State issued a group statement denouncing the infringements on press freedom in Hong Kong on behalf of the Media Freedom Coalition, co-signed by Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the U.K. and many other countries. The release called use of the National Security Law to suppress journalism a “negative step undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong, as provided for in the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement: “The Next Digital board’s decision to cease publication of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper is the result of the Chinese government’s outrageous efforts to stomp out critical voices in Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Clubexpressed concern that the actions against Apple Daily will “serve to intimidate independent media in Hong Kong and will cast a chill over the free press, protected under the Basic Law.”
Louisa Lim, an author and senior lecturer at the Center for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, wrote in the New York Times about the fear among Hong Kong journalists of what will be the next target. “The red waves are lapping at digital media outlets: The pro-democracy Stand News is already taking down online content. Others wonder if the red sea will swamp international news outlets, which could feel compelled to pull their remaining correspondents from Hong Kong for their own safety as the government prepares legislation to combat ‘fake news,’” she wrote.