Press freedom in Hong Kong is being “destroyed”.This is what the world lost

Read Time:7 Minute, 54 Second

A third group — five-year-old Citizen News — announced last week that it would also close. But unlike Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News didn’t wait for the police to knock on the door before closing the store.

“If we can’t continue to report the way we want and the way we feel safe, then, sadly, ceasing operations is the only option,” he said. Lead writer Chris Yeung said at a news conference on Monday.

In the 18 months since Beijing imposed sweeping national security laws on Hong Kong, the lines defining what content can still be published without breaking the law have become increasingly blurred. This makes it harder for journalists to understand what authorities consider acceptable and what could land them in prison for years.

That means Hong Kong – once one of Asia’s most active media venues and a place to claim freedom of speech and the press – has lost virtually all of its homegrown independent news outlets. And, while the government has denied claims that press freedom has been undermined, the future of independent reporting looks increasingly bleak.

“The government has created this climate of self-censorship and fear because there is now so much uncertainty about what is illegal or not, and what is inflammatory and non-inflammatory,” said a former journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lokman Tsui lives in the Netherlands.

“On the one hand, it’s a story about a lot of outlets being forced to close,” he said. “On the other hand, professional reporting in Hong Kong is so dangerous right now that you could end up in jail.”

blurred lines

Citizen News’ announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Just a few days ago, Stand News shut down after police raided its offices and arrested seven people linked to the publication. ‘Fate of stand news’ triggers decision Yang, who is also a former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said.

The charges against Position News involve “conspiracy to publish seditious publications,” stemming from colonial-era crime regulations rather than the 2020 national security law. The Hong Kong police who raided the exit office were national security officials.

Ultimately, Citizen News could not determine whether the stories it asked journalists to write violated the rules and chose to shut down to protect its staff, said Daisy Lee, editor-in-chief of the publication.

Citizen News editor-in-chief Li Yuehua and Citizen News founder Yang Jianxing arrived at the press conference.

To many bystanders, the outlet was yet another casualty of the city’s increasingly restrictive media environment. Like Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News publishes articles critical of government policy.

Sarah Cook, director of research for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, a nonprofit, said the rate at which the industry has been “destroyed” over the past two years has been staggering.

Nearly a year ago, the Hong Kong government announced it would replace the head of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) with a civil servant with no media experience. The RTHK program staff union responded that the station had lost its editorial independence. Hong Kong and Taiwan’s collaboration with Chinese state media has since raised concerns among press freedom advocates that media groups are increasingly becoming propaganda channels.

Then, in June, hundreds of police raided the offices of the long-running pro-democracy outlet Apple Daily. They arrested executives, froze their assets on national security charges — and eventually prompted them to stop publishing.

In August 2020, police raided the Hong Kong offices of Apple Daily. Credit: Apple Daily

“[Hong Kong leader] Carrie Lam patiently unravels the essence of press freedom in Hong Kong,” Reporters Without Borders said in a December 2021 report on press freedom in China.

Lin played down his concerns. This week, she dismissed allegations that the shutdown of Citizen News and Position News was tied to the national security law, and dismissed the idea that press freedom in Hong Kong was facing a collapse. She claimed the outlets closed at their own discretion.

“Nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong. Journalists and media organisations like all of us must respect and obey the law,” she said on Tuesday. “If they are afraid of not being able to comply with the law, then they have to make up their minds and make the necessary decisions.”

what happens next

Despite Carrie Lam’s insistence that there is still press freedom in Hong Kong, the number of independent media outlets is dwindling rapidly.

While Hong Kong still has major international media organizations — including CNN and Bloomberg — running major newsrooms, there are few independent local media outlets, experts point to the Chinese version of and the English version of Hong Kong Free Press. for example.

Many other outlets are either backed by the Chinese government or have mainland Chinese owners. For example, the city’s largest English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, is owned by mainland Chinese tech giant Alibaba.

Joseph Cheng, a Hong Kong political commentator now based in New Zealand, said any independent media was expected to be targeted sooner or later.

On July 15, 2021, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chen Rongsen (left), and Yang Zhiqiang take a group photo at a press conference to release the organization's annual report.

Chen Rongsheng, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and former editor of Stand News, agreed.

He said freedom of the press may continue on a small scale – but once the media gain too much attention and resources, they are likely to be targeted.

“The media is … cracking down hard,” Chen, whose home was raided by police, told CNN Business. “The chilling effect will affect many decisions in other media management.”

A year after Hong Kong's national security law, residents feel Beijing's tightening controls
Currently, international media have not faced the same challenges as local media, although some foreign journalists have been denied visas.
But Hong Kong’s future as a global media hub is at stake. Just weeks after the national security law was introduced in 2020, The New York Times announced it would be moving some of its staff from Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea.The Washington Post also Selected Seoul as the location of its new Asian Breaking News Center.
In a survey of 99 Hong Kong journalists conducted by the Foreign Correspondents Club last year, 84% said the situation in the media had worsened since the national security law was introduced, and 46% said they were considering or planning to leave Hong Kong. Decline of press freedom.
Currently, Hong Kong’s media is still nowhere near as restrictive as in mainland China, where Beijing’s so-called “Great Firewall” of censorship severely restricts internet access and journalists’ visas are difficult to obtain.

But the city’s media environment is shifting to be more similar to the mainland.

In the future, Hong Kong may be increasingly caught up in media coverage of the city from the outside — just as the media coverage of mainland China, said Freedom House’s Cook.

The city’s internet could be more restricted, Tsui said, and authorities could block access to articles it deems controversial.

why this matters

Experts also pointed out that the loss of local independent media in Hong Kong could also weaken the role of the press as an important community watchdog.

This echoes the dilemma facing media organizations around the world: In the United States, for example, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 200 counties have no newspapers at all, according to a 2019 PEN America report.

“This is consistent across all countries, all cultures – if local journalism dies, corruption will increase,” Xu said.

The problem for Hong Kong, however, is that this trend of local media shutdowns is combined with other attacks on democracy.

Since the introduction of the National Security Act, nearly all of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures have either been jailed or have gone into exile. Several organisations and unions have disbanded or left Hong Kong, including the pro-democracy groups that have organised some of the biggest protests in the city. The national security law is no longer just a threat – some activists have now been jailed under the act.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference in Hong Kong on December 30, 2021.

“The suppression of the democratic movement means intolerance of the opposition and intolerance of checks and balances,” Cheng said.

When Standpoint News and Apple Daily shut down, the two publications also removed years of coverage from the internet and took with them the city’s historical records.

“This is clearly an attempt to erase the memories of Hong Kong people,” Cheng said.

Hong Kong has long positioned itself as Asia’s world city, which also comes with a reputational cost.

Following the raid on Position News, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to stop targeting Hong Kong’s free and independent media and uphold freedom of speech and access to information.

“These freedoms allow Hong Kong to thrive as a global financial, trade, educational and cultural centre,” he said in a statement.

“By suppressing independent media, [the People’s Republic of China] and local authorities undermining Hong Kong’s credibility and viability. A confident government that is not afraid of the truth embraces freedom of the press,” he added.

Police packed press materials and evidence in blue plastic boxes after they searched the Stand News offices.

Despite the strict censorship in mainland China, Hong Kong is relatively free.This makes it a sort of gateway into the country, which is why so many businesses and media hubs are based in the city

But that is changing as Hong Kong gets closer to China.

“Now even this little peephole has become a black box,” Xu said. “The world is losing not just insight into Hong Kong, but insight into what’s going on in China.”

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