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Hong Kong: What does the new security law mean for press freedom?

Hong Kong’s recently enacted National Security Law on Monday claimed its first major target, with the arrest of media boss Jimmy Lai and six others associated with his company Next Media, on charges of colluding with foreign powers. Lai, a long-time critic of Beijing and pro-democracy activist, is well used to the constabulary’s knock on the door – he has previously been charged twice this year with illegal assembly and inciting illegal assembly – but it was the subsequent raiding of the offices of Apple Daily, the newspaper he owns, that caused the most indignation in Hong Kong.

Lai, a self-made man who came to Hong Kong from mainland China as a 12-year-old, made his fortune in clothing retail before founding Apple Daily in 1995. The paper is a mix of tabloid-style gossip and anti-establishment tribune, and its pro-democracy line reflects Lai’s increased political engagement following the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. Police released Lai on Tuesday night on bail while freezing  HK$50 million (£4.9 million) of his assets. The date of his trial is unspecified. That is likely to take place in Hong Kong and not in mainland China, as he was arrested by the Hong Kong police, and not the mainland’s new National Security Bureau.

Apple Daily was defiant, even as more than 200 police swarmed around its newsroom for hours, sifting through journalists’ belongings and whisking company property away as evidence. The newspaper live-streamed the raid to thousands of viewers on its Facebook page and, in a unique behind-the-scenes glimpse at news-making, the production of the next day’s edition

That would hit the streets in a massively increased print run, with Hongkongers queuing up at 2am to buy the first copies. 

The raid, with a grossly overmanned police presence at a time when COVID-19 social distancing restricts public gatherings to a maximum of two people, was the most visible sign to date of the new climate under the National Security Law. That Lai and Apple Daily would be targeted was not surprising. He has been subject to violent attacks, most recently in last September, the same month one of the paper’s journalists was assaulted in a restaurant. Ever since the Occupy Central protests in 2014, the paper says a number of major businesses, such as the banks HSBC and Standard Chartered, have stopped advertising with them, under pressure from Beijing.

Though the National Security Law contains nothing per se that directly aims to restrict press freedom, the vagueness of its provisions and breadth of its reach are likely to serve as a pretext to put further pressure on the media.

On the morning of Lai’s arrest, there were reports that a new national security unit would be set up within Hong Kong’s immigration department to handle “sensitive” visas, including those for foreign journalists, though the Hong Kong government denied this three days later. If this were true, it would be a formalisation of what is a recent, unprecedented phenomenon in Hong Kong – the refusal of visas to journalists.

 Former Financial Times bureau chief Victor Mallett was the first to be barred from staying on in the city, after he hosted a talk in 2018 at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) with Andy Chan of the separatist Hong Kong National Party, which was later outlawed. Last month, veteran New York Times China correspondent Chris Buckley was denied a visa to work in the city, having been forced to leave mainland China earlier in the year. Unlike on the mainland, foreign journalists require only a general working visa to ply their trade in Hong Kong. Anticipating further problems ahead, the New York Times decided to move its digital operations in Hong Kong to Seoul. Other news outlets have reported delays in work visas being issued to journalists. 

Such impediments have long been familiar to foreign media in China but in Hong Kong it is very much something new.

But Hong Kong’s own journalists remain the chief target of abuse by authorities. Pro-Beijing politicians have been calling for mandatory government regulation of journalists – no such thing currently exists, and news operations and the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) issue their own press cards. Supporters of the government have complained about the press supposedly favouring protesters and the police have issued their own punishments, refusing access to a press conference on Monday to several media, including those that had “previously obstructed” them, as they told public-service broadcaster RTHK

Relations between police and the media became increasingly strained over the course of last year’s protests, with reporters on the ground facing often rough-handed treatment from armed officers. This has resulted in protests by journalists at police press conferences, but little in the way of conciliation despite attempts at dialogue. Journalists have even had to face hostility from within their own newsrooms as some colleagues sided with the police and the government in the name of journalistic balance.

The HKJA advised its members to step up cybersecurity upon the passing of the new law and, while journalists might reasonably assume to be immune from prosecution if simply reporting it, the practicalities of covering protests mean the lines are not always clear. Among the ten arrested on Monday was Wilson Li, a freelance videographer working with ITN, because of his connections with a pro-democracy NGO. Even if reporters are scrupulous in abiding by the new law, it is not altogether fanciful to suppose that they might in future face prosecution on spurious grounds, such as the notorious charge of “picking quarrels”, which is often used to silence dissenters on the mainland.

While Hong Kong is not yet an especially dangerous place to do journalism, it is becoming increasingly suffocating. The city this year dropped seven places to 80th on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index – in 2002, five years after the handover to China, it was ranked 18th

Journalists and editors critical of Beijing have faced attacks from shadowy elements, while journalists were assaulted by both supporters and opponents of the government during last year’s protests. But the assaults on press freedom are more often institutional. RTHK, which has been one of the most dogged media outlets in its needling of Carrie Lam at press conferences has exasperated a government that cannot control it quite as much as it would like to. A popular satirical show Headliner was abruptly cancelled after its irreverent output was too much for the Communications Authority, which accused it of “denigrating and insulting” the police. 

The government also said the broadcaster breached the “One China” principle (by which Beijing claims dominion over Taiwan) by asking a World Health Organization official if the organisation would consider readmitting Taiwan. There followed a letter to staff from RTHK’s director of broadcasting to produce “fair and just” news reports. This week, it was reported that RTHK had pulled from its website and YouTube channel an interview with exiled pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, broadcast on July 31, because Hong Kong has since declared Law a wanted man for violating the National Security Law.

There has been otherwise little visible change in the broadcaster’s reporting but this succession of episodes is an example of how pressure points at a remove from newsrooms themselves might be determining factors in reporting in a much chillier media climate in Hong Kong.

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