2021 has been a year of dramatic changes for Hong Kong’s media scene, as the city adapts to life under Beijing’s National Security Act.
Journalists have been arrested, according to pro-democracy media Apple Daily was forced to close and visas for foreign correspondents were delayed or, in one case, refused.
This is a radical change for a city that was once a model for press freedom and where anti-government protests were covered freely by local and international journalists. These same protests led Beijing to pass the law, which prohibits secession and collusion with foreign forces.
Journalists ‘associations, including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Hong Kong, are concerned about its impact. the FCC Annual Survey of members found that 84% believe conditions have worsened since the law came into force. About 34% said they were considering leaving Hong Kong due to the decline in press freedom.
“We can never come back”
Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and editor of the stand News news website, told VOA at the end of December that 2021 was “the saddest year” for Hong Kong media. and that next year would not be “easy”.
“We can never come back. Hong Kong has changed, ”Chan said. “Freedom of the press has many red lines. “
Maintaining a free press in Hong Kong was the best way to differentiate the city from China, Chan said, adding that it was “important for Hong Kong people to always have good media.”
But the seasoned reporter said: “We still have a very critical situation.” He cited proposals from a law banning fake news for next year, billed by authorities as part of a campaign against the spread of disinformation.
Hong Kong Managing Director Carrie Lam has repeatedly said press freedom is guaranteed by Hong Kong Basic Law and has denied that the arrests and closure of Apple Daily were an attack on the media. She said journalists have a responsibility not to break the new law.
Even before the national security law came into effect, Jimmy Lai, the billionaire founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, had doubts about the survival of its outlet.
In 2021, these concerns have been realized.
In June, Apple Daily was forced to shut down after more than 25 years, when several executives were indicted under security law and the outlet’s financial assets were frozen, leaving the company unable to pay its salespeople and staff.
Lai spent over a year in prison, sentenced for his role in the anti-government protests. This month, he was sentenced in another case to 13 months in prison for participating in a prohibited vigil in Tiananmen Square, and is awaiting trial in a third case, on charges under the Law of national security that could carry a life sentence.
Like Apple Daily Closed, political analyst Joseph Cheng told VOA it was a “sad day for Hong Kong” and added that there was “not a lot” of media freedom in the territory.
The city’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), has also undergone changes that have led critics to question its editorial independence.
Under the direction of newly appointed director Patrick Li, the broadcaster has cut some shows, claiming they had been biased; deleted part of the station’s online archives; and gave Lam a regular broadcast to discuss Beijing’s electoral reforms for the city.
RTHK employees, who spoke to VOA earlier this year on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they believed executives were trying to erase Hong Kong’s history. And critics have condemned the decision to provide a show for Lam, suggesting that RTHK is empowering propaganda.
RTHK’s communications team fended off criticism, telling VOA earlier that the broadcaster is editorially independent “as stipulated in the charter.”
The contracts of at least two of the broadcaster’s journalists were not renewed, including Nabela Qoser and former RTHK producer Bao Choy.
The broadcaster had received complaints from pro-government figures about Qoser’s confrontational interrogation of Lam at the height of anti-government protests.
In Choy’s case, a court this year found the producer guilty of two counts of illegally obtaining public data. Choy had used vehicle registration data for an award-winning RTHK documentary that investigated the Hong Kong police response to attacks on pro-democracy protesters in 2019.
Choy criticized the current environment, telling VOA the authorities “are using the law to suppress press freedom.”
Journalists wishing to access public databases similar to those used by Choy will face more obstacles after the Hong Kong Land Registry and Companies Register updated their terms.
Users are now required to provide details such as their Hong Kong ID number and search reason when performing public information searches.
Several journalists said they feared the authorities would use the data against them.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association warned that such policies risked undermining press freedom. But in recent months he has come under pressure.
Hong Kong Security Secretary Chris Tang and Police Commissioner Raymond Siu Chak-yee both noted that the association makes it easy for applicants to gain media status, and that it has biased opinions and promotes pro-democracy press organizations.
The changes in Hong Kong reflect a broader Chinese crackdown on the press, according to a report released in December by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
China is the world’s biggest kidnapper of journalists with 127 currently detained. RSF also identified 10 key factors in media suppression, including censorship and propaganda pressure, and increased difficulty for the foreign press to obtain visas.
This trend seems to be filtering through Hong Kong.
Last month, Sue-Lin Wong, China correspondent for The Economist, was refused a renewal of a work visa in Hong Kong, without reason.
No exceptions noted
“I think whatever the reason, to kick a Economist correspondent means they would kick anyone out of any organization, ”a Hong Kong-based international journalist told VOA on condition of anonymity.
Eric Wishart, a veteran journalist and co-organizer of the press freedom committee at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, told VOA earlier this year that reporters are unsure what will get them in trouble with the authorities.
“We’re talking about the ‘red lines’ in Hong Kong, but the paint is still fresh,” Wishart said. “It’s a changing landscape, and it’s a big, big challenge for everyone. “