One day after the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech that declared Dec. 7, 1941, as ”a date which will live in infamy.” For journalists around the world, June 30, 2020, may become their “Day of Infamy.”
On June 30, 2020, the Beijing government stepped in on Hong Kong’s governance and enacted the Hong Kong National Security Law – a vaguely-worded law with wide-reaching scope that criminalizes any act of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion (with foreign / external forces). Those found guilty can face life sentences.
Article 54 of the new law is particularly troubling for media as it suggests stricter censorship and monitoring of foreign news outlets.
From 2017 to early-2020, the word “collusion” was instinctively connected to the alleged crime of then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and its now debunked “Russian collusion.” But these days, in Hong Kong, “collusion” is THE subjective crime that is the dread of all journalists the world over. According to Article 38, the new security law applies to HK and non-HK residents alike, as well as people outside of Hong Kong who are not from Hong Kong.
Not surprisingly, the first group arrested under this security law was from the media and pro-democracy members. Hong Kong police raided the offices of print (Apple Daily) and digital media (Next Digital) and arrested owner Jimmy Lai, his two sons and some employees on Aug. 10. They were released on bail the following morning. A pro-democracy lawmaker, Agnes Chow, also was arrested. It is widely believed the arrests were made to make them an example of the National Security Law and to intimidate.
Hong Kongers protested the arrest and showed their support for the raided Apple Daily by queueing up at 2 a.m. Aug. 11 to buy 500,000 copies of the publication. Interviewed by the Guardian, one of the protesters said, “I want to defend the value of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Disappointment, fear, and pain are in my heart, but I tell myself every day to persevere.”
What collusion / deals with foreign forces did Apple Daily and Jimmy Lai make? None cited. But Jimmy Lai had testified before U.S. Congress; he had written Op Ed pieces for U.S. newspapers. He’s also a known critic of Beijing.
An Aug. 27 letter in Hong Kong’s English-language daily South China Morning Post by the co-chairs of the London-based All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, said in response to an Aug. 24 letter by the chief secretary for administration in HK,
“In any other country, the police marching in and arresting the owner and senior staff of a major news publisher, whilst simultaneously arresting other journalists across the territory and other reporters being denied visas, would be the sign of the collapse of free speech … It is admirable that the chief secretary for administration in Hong Kong is so fond of free speech and, indeed, exercises his rights by writing to a major international publication based in a country where such rights are taken seriously, but it is not so admirable that under his regime young people are being arrested for expressing an opinion on the future of Hong Kong and that legislators are being barred from standing in the next (postponed) election.”
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) of Hong Kong had sent a letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam seeking a “guarantee that journalists would be free to report on any topics they saw fit under the new national security law,” to which Lam replied, “If the FCC or all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 percent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same.”
The Hong Kong Immigrations Department had been slow in granting work visas to foreign journalist. When asked for an explanation by the FCC, the department said that the processing times for different applicants depended on their “merits and circumstances.”
Chris Buckley of the New York Times was denied a work visa renewal for Hong Kong in July after being denied visa renewal for mainland China in May. Another HK-based foreign journalist was denied a work visa after being hired to join Hong Kong Free Press, an independent local news outlet – a transfer to a new employer since the applicant had been working for other news outlets in HK already – after a six-month wait. These actions are concerning to media operations. “The applicant has already satisfied the immigration department before,” the journalist’s lawyer said. “The real issue is where the applicant is going, the prospective employer.”
According to Hong Kong Free Press, nine international press freedom organizations “have jointly signed a letter urging the governments of China and Hong Kong to stop the arrests, harassment and intimidation of journalists, and demand “the protection of democratic and media freedoms.”
Voice of America reported many media organizations were approached by authors to take down previous articles, putting the media in a conflicting position of preserving a historical record of their publications and protecting their contributors.
Most activists have halted giving on-the-record comments because no one has figured out what “provoking hatred toward the government” means. In addition, 92 percent of a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association just before the law was enacted said they were “worried about their personal safety” and 87 percent believed the media “would stop reporting on sensitive issues.”
“The entire media landscape is facing a new frontier,” said a lecturer in media law at the University of Hong Kong.”
As reported in previous China Insights (February 2015, p.11; April 2016, p.13; March 2018, p.6; July 2020, p.4), press freedom in Hong Kong had been on a downward slide in the World Press Freedom index since the early 2000s. It had tumbled to 73rd out of 180 countries (China placed 177th), a drop of 25 places in 10 years.
However, in his Opinion piece of Aug. 22. for HKFP, Robert Gerhardt (freelance writer who has lived in HK since 2015 and member of the National Press Photographers Association in the U.S.) tried to offer an optimistic outlook:
“A free press has always been the thin grey line between the public and those in power who want to stop the flow of unwelcome information. But the journalists’ ability to do their work and provide that line depends not just on themselves, but on the support of those who read or watch their work. Hongkongers have shown their support for a free press in their reaction to the Apple Daily raid. And while the huge street protests of last year aren’t possible under Covid-19, the actions of the people last week show that the fighting spirit is still there, and that a free and open press is still something they will battle for.
“So don’t mourn the death of the free press in Hong Kong. Don’t think that it is dead and gone. Journalists in the city are still there doing their jobs. And the people still have their backs. To say otherwise is just fake news.
Hope springs eternal. But reality is as Canadian freelance documentary producer Chris Lincoln told Toronto Star on Aug. 22, the national security law “essentially placed the territory under the authoritarian control of Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party … Is there a place in the world that has a free press, but the kind of authoritarian regime that Hong Kong is being subjected to now?” he asked. “When are they coming for the journalists?”