Chinese officials have hauled Hong Kong-based foreign journalists in for a lecture over their reporting on legislation to allow renditions of criminal suspects from the city to mainland China, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing thinks should be less negative, according to an official website.
The Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had held a briefing with reporters and senior editors from Reuters, Kyodo News, the Financial Times, CNN and CNBC to address their reporting of a bitter political row over planned amendments to the city's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.
Deputy commissioner Song Ru'an told the journalists to be "fair, balanced and objective", and to "inject some positive energy" into their reporting of the issue, the commission said in a statement on its website.
"The central government in Beijing fully supports the [Hong Kong] government's plan to amend these two laws," Song told the journalists, in a reference to a twin amendment that would allow the Hong Kong authorities to confiscate the assets of anyone deemed a criminal suspect by the mainland Chinese authorities.
"I hope that the foreign journalists based in Hong Kong will report on these amendments in a fair, objective and balanced manner," he said, repeating previous comments from Chinese officials that the amendments are urgently required.
One of the journalists who attended the session, James Pomfret from Reuters, quoted Song as saying that it was "highly deplorable" that foreign governments and "external forces" had weighed in on the matter, according to Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK.
The move comes after widespread criticism of the amendments both in Hong Kong and overseas, as it would potentially expose anyone in Hong Kong to targeting by officials in China, which lacks human rights protections, legal due process, and judicial independence.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned on Wednesday that the planned changes, which are highly likely to get through a Legislative Council (LegCo) packed with pro-Beijing lawmakers, would "allow Beijing to legally prey on residents and visitors, including journalists and their sources."
"The news has generated extreme concern in the Hong Kong media community, considering that more than 65 journalists are currently jailed in China in life threatening conditions," RSF said in a statement.
"While on paper the bill would exclude political and economic crimes as well as cases where human rights are at risk, many fear that the Hong Kong authorities would not have the ability to reject Beijing’s requests," it said.
Legalizing cross-border abductions
RSF's East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said the amendments would effective legalize cross-border abductions such as that of Swedish national and Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai from Thailand and that of U.K. national Lee Bo, also known as Lee Po, from Hong Kong in 2015.
"If such a regulation was adopted, Beijing would no longer have to resort to abduction, and would simply be able to seize whoever they wish to silence under a false accusation," Alviani warned.
RSF said Hong Kong’s ranking in its Press Freedom Index had plummeted from 18th in 2002 to 73rd this year, while China ranked 177th out of 180 in the 2019 index.
A review by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission earlier this month warned that the amended law could increase Hong Kong's political vulnerability and further erode the city's promised autonomy.
The report found that the bill would remove independent legislative oversight in the extradition process and undermine strong legal protections guaranteed in Hong Kong, leaving the city and its residents exposed to Beijing’s "weak legal system and politically motivated charges."
It said renditions under the proposed amendments could create "serious risks" to U.S. national security and economic interests.
The Hong Kong Bar Association has warned that the law will place all decision-making power over renditions to mainland China into the hands of Hong Kong's chief executive, who is currently elected by a committee hand-picked by Beijing.
It said the new law will remove a layer of approval by LegCo, meaning that there is no way to hold the government accountable, and no provision allowing Hong Kong courts to refuse an extradition request on human rights grounds, nor to decide that evidence submitted by the mainland authorities is inadmissible.
Rights groups have also called on the Hong Kong government to scrap the legal changes, saying they could place people at risk of torture and unfair trials.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.