Press Freedom in Hong Kong Reeling Under National Security Law: Report

Journalists are left unsure of exactly which words will likely get them arrested under the draconian law, an industry association says.
By Man Hoi Yan and Emily Chan
2021-07-15
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Press Freedom in Hong Kong Reeling Under National Security Law: Report Ronson Chan (L), chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and Chris Yeung, chief editor, pose during a press conference to release the group's annual report, July 15, 2021.
AFP

Hong Kong's press freedom is 'in tatters', following the forced closure of the Apple Daily and the arrests of columnists under the national security law, the city's journalists' association said on Thursday.

Press freedom in the city has been increasingly affected by political "red lines" laid down after the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed its national security law on the city from July 1, 2020, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA} said in an annual report.

It listed the arrest of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai on charges of "colluding with foreign powers," a forthcoming law banning "fake news," government control over content broadcast by RTHK, and the arrest of a journalist for searching a public database for car license plates for a documentary.

It also cited the forced closure of the Apple Daily after its bank accounts were frozen and the arrests of its columnists and top executives on the same charges as Lai.

"HKJA is [concerned] ... about the erosion of freedom and the damage done to the diversified media scene," the group said in a statement on its website launching the report.

"The roundup of media professionals is also damaging for the city’s international reputation, especially when Hong Kong takes pride in its free flow of information and free exchange of ideas," it said.

The group called on China's National People's Congress (NPC) to review the implementation of the national security law and amend it to ensure press freedom.

It also called on the administration of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to shelve planned legislation banning "fake news" and misinformation, and for police to stop defining who is a journalist for the purposes of reporting major public events.

"The Government should [also] stop putting pressure on RTHK and respect its editorial autonomy," the HKJA said.

Definitions, guidelines unclear

HKJA chairman Ronson Chan said it's hard for journalists to figure out how to stay out of trouble, given the vagueness of definitions in the national security law, and considerable official flexibility in interpreting them.

"We really want to know which issues are going to be seen as crossing these red lines when we are doing our reporting, writing commentaries, or discussing something," Chan said.

"Is this going to happen if we discuss anything to do with sanctions or independence?"

"We heard the [government] say that these crimes are on a par with murder or arson, and yet they can't tell us clearly where the red lines are," he said. "This is something that causes great concern among journalists and citizens alike."

Chan said new legislation in the pipeline banning "fake news" is another cause for concern.

Hong Kong police chief Raymond Siu called on June 26 for a law banning "fake news," echoing earlier comments from Lam.

Former HKJA chairman Chris Yeung said press freedom in Hong Kong has been "destroyed by totalitarianism," in a process dating back to the cross-border arrests of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015.

"They managed to end a media outlet right there, before any trials had even begun," Yeung said. "It's quite clear that the national security law is being used destructively to undermine press freedom."

The HKJA's Hong Kong Press Freedom Index 2020 was at a record low, the group said.

"The main reason for the drop is that journalists are more cautious than ever when they criticize the [Hong Kong] government and the central government, and managed has put more pressure on them," the report said.

Three crucial indicators, including the adequacy of legal safeguards for journalists' free access to information, the ability of the media to play the role of watchdog, and the diversity of viewpoints in the city's media, all fell sharply, the HKJA said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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