Hong Kong denies entry to campaigner en route to Jimmy Lai trial

Reporters Without Borders advocate is held, searched and questioned for six hours.
By Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2024.04.11
Hong Kong denies entry to campaigner en route to Jimmy Lai trial Aleksandra Bielakowska of Reporters Without Borders in an undated photo.
RSF

An advocacy worker for the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders has been denied entry to Hong Kong, en route to monitor the national security trial of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai.

Taipei-based Aleksandra Bielakowska was held for six hours, searched and questioned after arriving at Hong Kong's International Airport on Wednesday, the group said in a statement.

She had been planning to meet with journalists in the city in the wake of a stringent new security law passed last month under Article 23 of the city's Basic Law, and to monitor a hearing in Lai's ongoing trial, the group said.

"[They asked] what I'm doing here, if it's a work-related visit. I said of course, yes, because I'm [an] NGO worker," Bielakowska said in an interview with RFA Cantonese on Thursday after her return to Taiwan. 

"They searched my belongings, in depth, in detail -- they scanned them twice, checked my shoes, everything, checked how much money I had,” she said, adding that 12 officers and staff were watching her the whole time she was being interviewed and searched.

"The person who questioned me was an immigration officer, plus there was a customs officer, but I couldn't tell if there were any police or plainclothes officers inside of the room, because they hadn't given me any IDs," Bielakowska said. "But there were some people who didn't look like immigration officers."

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Aleksandra Bielakowska, left, and Shataakshi Verma of Reporters Without Borders stand outside a Hong Kong court for Jimmy Lai's trial in December 2023. (RSF)

Eventually, she was given a notice of refusal of entry, with a reason she described as "nebulous." Immigration officers refused to clarify the reason for the decision, even when asked repeatedly, Bielakowska said.

Hong Kong's immigration authorities have a stated policy of not commenting on individual cases. A form handed to Bielakowska said only that she would be “imminently/immediately” removed from the city “within a reasonable time,” and that this justified her detention.

Article 23

The Safeguarding National Security Law, known as “Article 23,” was billed by the government as a way to protect the city from interference and infiltration by "hostile foreign forces" that Beijing blames for waves of mass popular protests in recent years.

But its critics -- and some of the city's residents -- say it will likely have far-reaching effects on human rights and freedom of expression that go further than the 2020 National Security Law under which Lai is being prosecuted, with a far broader reach and tougher penalties.

Jimmy Lai stands accused of "collusion with foreign forces" and faces a potential life sentence, yet the case against him relies heavily on opinion articles published in his now-shuttered flagship Apple Daily newspaper.

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Jimmy Lai is escorted by Correctional Services officers to get on a prison van before appearing in a court in Hong Kong, Dec. 12, 2020. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Bielakowska, who was allowed into Hong Kong in December 2023 to monitor the start of Lai's trial, said Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, isn't a political organization and that she wasn't doing anything "seditious." 

"We just fight for the rights of journalists and press freedom around the world," she said. "It's our obligation as an NGO to attend the hearings and the trials."

Bielakowska's colleague, Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani, was allowed to enter Hong Kong, but returned to Taipei the next day "for security reasons," she said.

‘Dire erosion’

RSF said it was "appalled" by the treatment of Bielakowska, who was "simply trying to do her job."

"We have never experienced such blatant efforts by authorities to evade scrutiny of court proceedings in any country, which further highlights the ludicrous nature of the case against Jimmy Lai, and the dire erosion of press freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong," RSF's Director of Campaigns Rebecca Vincent said in a statement, calling for an immediate explanation from the Hong Kong authorities.

Vincent said the remainder of Lai's national security trial "cannot take place in darkness."

"The world must know what is happening in Hong Kong, which has implications for global press freedom," she said.

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An immigration document issued to Aleksandra Bielakowska of Reporters Without Borders in an undated photo. (RSF)

The group said it was the first time any of its representatives has been denied entry or questioned at Hong Kong's airport. Its staff had t

raveled there without hindrance in June and December 2023, and were able to meet with journalists and diplomats, as well as monitoring court proceedings without any problems, it said.

RSF said it regularly monitors trials around the world as part of its normal work defending press freedom – from proceedings against journalists in Türkiye, to the ongoing US extradition case against Julian Assange in UK courts.

Plunging rank

Hong Kong ranks 140th out of 180 in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, having plummeted from 18th place in the past two decades. The rest of China ranks 179th out of 180 countries and territories.

To Yiu-ming, a former assistant professor at the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the questioning of Bielakowska would send a strong message to foreign journalists and international organizations that follow developments in Hong Kong.

"Most importantly, this will have a negative impact on the way that foreign media and the international community view Hong Kong, particularly the impact of the Article 23 legislation on press freedom in Hong Kong," To told RFA Cantonese in an interview on Thursday.

He said that rather than laying down clear guidelines about who will be denied entry, they are proceeding on a case-by-case basis.

"I think [such cases] will be subject to review by national security police," To said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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