Monday was World Press Freedom day that provided a chance to reflect on press freedom already lost in Hong Kong and what is now at stake as the safe space for journalists in the city shrinks by the day.
First of all, as far as the stakes are concerned and on a personal level, this is an easier column to write each week from the safety of Australia than it is for the Apple Daily editors to publish from an office that was raided by Hong Kong Police Force officers little more than six months ago. Apple Daily’s owner Jimmy Lai has been detained on various charges, including some under National Security Law (NSL), the insidious threat of which pervades every aspect of a Hong Kong-based journalist’s work.
The attacks on press freedom in Hong Kong in recent years have ranged from blunt attacks on the streets – the blinding in one eye of Indonesian reporter Veby Mega Indah was a low point during the 2019 protests – as an out-of-control Hong Kong Police Force attempted to intimidate reporters through assaults, harassment and arrests.
As the protests subsided, the attacks on press freedom moved through the courts. The prosecution of RTHK producer Bao Choy Yuk-ling for her exemplary investigative work for a piece on the 721 Yuen Long attacks was a devastating legal precedent for all local journalists and one of many attacks on the broadcaster.
It is little consolation, but the relentless attacks by authorities on RTHK are an indication of how effective the journalism at the broadcaster is.
The establishment’s desire to turn RTHK into its own state media outlet has long been clear through censorship but in the launch of “Get to Know the Election Committee Subsections”, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam as host, it reached a nadir.
Not content with changing the direction of the broadcaster, the establishment also wants to whitewash history, and content of more than one year old on RTHK’s social media channels has begun.
This may be stating the obvious, especially for those living and working with the reality of NSL, but it bears repeating: the powerful effects of law aren’t only in its severe penalties but in its blurred red lines and entirely subjective application. Even without charging journalists directly, NSL creates roadblocks to press freedom at every turn. The fear of NSL charges – for journalists and their contacts – sows seeds of doubt, journalists will second-guess and ultimately self-censor, and it creates a climate of fear in which sources are less willing to be quoted and even off-the-record conversations are harder to come by.
Journalist Gwyneth Ho has already been charged under National Security Law and remains behind bars, awaiting trial, and although her charges relate to involvement in the unofficial primary elections, how long before National Security Law is used to charge a journalist for their work?
The warnings from officials regarding “pro-independence propaganda” and “fake news” were chilling: it is clear that soon enough the law won’t just be an obstacle to the work of journalism, that journalism itself will be a crime in Hong Kong.
The denial of a visa to Financial Times editor Victor Mallet in 2018 was a harbinger of another avenue of control of media in the city and one of the next steps for authorities in the relentless clampdown might be using immigration as a way to weed out foreign journalists who the government dislikes. The recent passing of immigration laws which will provide powers to stop people entering or leaving the city, without a court order, including banning airlines from carrying certain passengers, loom as frightening new tools of oppression.
While it is journalists in the city under immediate threat, the ripple effects of the campaign against free press in Hong Kong will be felt the world over.
Authoritarian regimes are rarely content to silence voices in their own backyard – the pursuit of dissidents by countries like Russia, Chechnya and Saudi Arabia are well-documented – and while China has so far been content to run smear campaigns against foreign critics and target their families in China but in future the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could act against critics on foreign shores.
The biggest impact of the loss of freedom of the press will be on the people of Hong Kong. Without the eyes of the fourth estate and holding truth to power, how will authorities behave? Without media on the streets, the HKPF and new National Security Law forces will operate in the shadows.
(Michael Cox is a journalist and Hong Kong permanent resident currently based in Australia. He has previously written for the South China Morning Post, The Age (Melbourne) and Australian Associated Press.)
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