The Hong Police Chief informed reporters that they could be investigated for disseminating suspected false information. A Chinese government-controlled newspaper called the city’s largest pro-democracy media outlets for silence. Masked men raided and searched the headquarters of a publication critical of the Chinese Communist Party and destroyed their press offices.
Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom in Asia, a place where journalism is conducted much more independently and aggressively than in neighboring mainland China, has been under continuous pressure for years.
Now, as Beijing takes action to quell dissent in the city, the press is under attack head-on. Traditional pressure tactics, such as spreading boycotts, have lost ground to the kind of direct confrontation that can silence prominent journalists and transform or shut down the organizations they work for.
Recent targets of these attacks include the pro-democracy Apple Daily, whose founder was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week, and the public broadcaster RTHK, known for its extensive investigations. On Thursday (22), one of the station’s award-winning producers, Choy Yuk-ling, was convicted of making false statements to gain access to public documents for a report containing criticism of the police. She was fined 6,000 Hong Kong dollars (approximately R $ 4,250).
“It seems that recently something has definitely changed,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Center for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong. “Self-censorship is still a problem, and we don’t know what the limits are on the permit, but it looks like we are seeing a more frontal attack on the media in Hong Kong.”
It is not only today that Beijing wants to bring Hong Kong under its control. A semi-autonomous Chinese city since the UK surrendered its former colony in 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by its own rules. Its residents enjoyed freedoms unknown in mainland China, including unlimited internet access, the right to protest, and an independent press.
But after the big protests which in 2019 deeply agitated the city and sometimes turned violent, the Chinese central government took advantage of the unrest to launch a wave of repression. Last year, Beijing imposed a new uncompromising national security law that criminalized many forms of anti-government speech. He then made changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, strengthening the control of power by the pro-Beijing establishment.
Pro-democracy parliamentarians have been sidelined. The protest movement was silenced. Activists were arrested. And journalists found themselves in the government’s crosshairs.
A Hong Kong court on Thursday ruled that Choy, an independent producer, had broken the law by using a public database of license plates in an investigation into an attack by an angry mob at a train station in July 2019, which left 45 injured. Activists accused the police of turning a blind eye to the violence.
The reporter, who also uses the name Bao Choy, helped produce documentaries for the RTHK investigating those responsible for the attacks and why the police were slow to respond. She was arrested in November and charged with making false statements about using the public database.
Choy said his case demonstrates how authorities want to crack down on the media and limit access to information that was previously available to the public.
“Since I was arrested, I realized it wasn’t just my problem,” he said. “This is a larger issue regarding press freedom in Hong Kong.”
Press freedom organizations denounced Choy’s arrest and characterized it as part of a campaign to harass journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists described the government’s action as “an absurdly disproportionate action which amounts to a direct attack on press freedom”.
The lawsuit against Choy is the latest move against RTHK, Hong Kong’s largest public radio and television network, which has published highly critical government reports for years. The broadcaster’s status guarantees it editorial independence, but as a government-owned entity it has little protection against officials who want to subject it to tighter scrutiny. Pro-Beijing MK Regina Ip last week said the government should consider shutting down the broadcaster entirely.
Months after the National Security Law was passed, the Hong Kong government asked the RTHK to be more strictly overseen by government-appointed advisers.
The organization Reporters Without Borders, which defends press freedom, said on Tuesday (20) that the national security law poses a threat to journalists and that the RTHK “is the subject of a campaign of intimidation front of the government in order to limit their editorial autonomy ”.
The Hong Kong government rejected the idea that the RTHK is under attack and said it was “shocked” by the suggestion that “people in a given profession are immune from legal sanctions”.
International media have also come under pressure in Hong Kong. A Financial Times editor-in-chief was forced to leave the city in 2018 in apparent retaliation for giving a speech by a pro-independence activist. The New York Times has moved several of its publishers from Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea, in part because of difficulties in renewing their work visas.
The Epoch Times, linked to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in mainland China, has faced even more direct attacks. Four men broke into his printing plant on April 12, destroying printing presses and computers. The newspaper said there were no injuries and was able to return to the publication soon after.
“The Epoch Times is not afraid of violent coercion,” newspaper spokeswoman Cheryl Ng said in a statement.
Perhaps the biggest target of attacks to date is Jimmy Lai, an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party and founder of the pro-democracy Daily Apple newspaper. Last week he was sentenced to 14 months in prison after being convicted of an unauthorized meeting in connection with two protests in 2019.
Police raided the Apple Daily newsroom last year, and Jimmy Lai faces national security law criminal charges for allegedly calling for US sanctions against Hong Kong. The law provides that crimes “of a serious nature”, a term intentionally ambiguous, are punishable by penalties which may lead to life imprisonment.
Regina Ip, the pro-establishment MP, explained to reporters from RTHK what their role would be for her. In a legislative session last week, he said that a reporter from the station must be willing “to be the spokesperson for the government.”
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang last week warned that publications that produce suspected false information could be investigated. He called for new laws to regulate the press.
Yet many journalists say they will not be intimidated by the government’s efforts to stifle their work.
“Some journalists are disappointed,” said Gladys Chiu, director of the network’s professional union. “But others think there is still room to fight.”