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Journalism is Under Siege in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government warned the Wall Street Journal that an editorial in the paper about the Hong Kong election may have violated Chinese election laws by inciting voters to avoid the polls or cast blank ballots. Therefore, the government asserted, it reserved the right to take any action that it considered necessary irrespective of whether the violation was committed in Hong Kong or overseas.

Over the past year, according to local media, the Hong Kong government has sent at least 136 such letters to international media outlets, local newspapers in foreign countries, and even academic journals to voice criticism of supposedly biased, distorted, misleading, or inaccurate reporting. Of these letters, around 50 related to the National Security Law and pro-democracy activists prosecuted for violating it, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, and another 30 or so related to Hong Kong’s electoral system, which ensures that only those whom Beijing has deemed “patriotic” administer the city.

The government’s direct response to the external criticism—rather than humble acceptance or at least efforts to improve the reputation of the SAR government through “soft” methods such as public relations—is telling. It shows that the government officials now in power are in step with the Chinese government and, in particular, Xi Jinping’s call for a “fighting" spirit” in Chinese officials’ international communications and greater control over the international narrative about China.

Foreign media outlets are also being punished for their accurate coverage of the situation in Hong Kong since the crackdown on the 2019 protests. Thus, some of their journalists have been unable to obtain renewal of their visas by the Hong Kong government and forced to leave the city. While Beijing has long used the issuance of visas as a tactic to control and punish critical overseas voices, for foreign media professionals based in Hong Kong, the national security law adds an additional layer of regulations that often leave unclear whether the content of a given story, or even the subject matter, will be considered off-limits. Hong Kong’s status as a media hub for the Asia-Pacific region has also diminished, with some media organizations relocating significant numbers of permanent staff to other Asian cities such as Seoul and Taipei owing to security concerns raised by the SAR government’s behavior following passage of the national security law.

The local media outlets and workers in Hong Kong face even greater challenges and pressures than their foreign counterparts. Apple Daily was forced to cease publication in June 2021, and Jimmy Lai and other senior managers and staff, including the lead writer of an editorial identified as particularly subversive, are currently in prison on charges of violating various national security statutes. The local police pointed specifically to several articles calling on foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong and insisted that the prosecution of the writer of the editorial had nothing to do with freedom of the press.

Just a few days ago, Chris Tang, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, denounced The Stand News, a pro-democracy online outlet, for what he described as biased and misleading stories, in particular reporting demonizing law enforcement agencies, and, during the 2019 protests, glorifying the violent behavior of anti-government demonstrators. Mr. Tang’s comments raised concerns about whether the authorities were targeting The Stand News for national security violations in preparation for actions such as those taken against Apple Daily. While declining to discuss any individual case, he warned:

“Anyone or any organization, no matter what they use to disguise themselves, whether it’s the media or a non-governmental organization, if they want to break the law or endanger national security, we will definitely find evidence to prove that you are breaking the law.”

Mr. Tang also targeted the Hong Kong Journalists Association on the grounds that the organization was “infiltrating” schools for the purpose of attracting student journalists, pointedly asking the association’s representative to explain why so many of its members were students. The context for this latter complaint is the unilateral decision last year by the Hong Kong Police Force to exclude from its definition of “media representative” most online-only and student journalists, a change that, officials claimed, served to facilitate the maintenance of order on the front lines of demonstrations.

Government-owned or -controlled official media outlets, as mouthpieces of the state, are often seen by outsiders as propaganda organs. Some countries, such as the United States, subject such outlets to registration and regulation as foreign agents, a move that the public does not usually view as a restriction on press freedom. However, governments’ efforts to equate private media outlets that report opposing voices with political groups or agents of foreign governments in the name of national security raise fundamental questions about the media landscape. At issue is how to distinguish activism from journalism, who defines such terms, the implications of registration and regulation policies for press freedom, and how journalists working for organizations that criticize governments can protect themselves against reprisal.

At the very least, the Hong Kong government’s criticism of and accusations against media organizations, both international or local, are having an immediate impact in terms of encouraging self-censorship by press outlets and media workers. The chilling effect of the shuttering of Apple Daily has naturally left editors wary regarding what stories to cover and how to cover them. Such concerns were not a feature of journalism in Hong Kong prior to the passage of the national security law, so reporters were free to report even stories that the Chinese government considered sensitive. When those whose coverage was critical of the government were forced to leave the mainland, Hong Kong had been their first choice as an alternative location to continue their work. Moreover, criticism of the Hong Kong government was a part of normal daily discourse that, rather than eliciting criticism from officials, was seen rather as a symbol of Hong Kong’s tolerant, rational, and free society under the one-country-two-systems policy.

Hong Kong’s media system, then, is undergoing a fundamental change from a libertarian to authoritarian one. Private news outlets still exist, but they now operate under strict government control. Nevertheless, unlike mainland China, residents of Hong Kong continue to enjoy unfettered access to the Internet so that independent online media remain able to provide alternative voices. Of course, these alternative media are facing political and financial pressures, but, at least for the moment, their presence leaves open many possibilities for a return to a freer media environment.