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Analysis: Hong Kong’s free press is being ‘gutted.’ Here’s what the world loses

A 3rd group — the five-year-old Citizen News — introduced final week that it could shut down, too. But not like Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News did not look ahead to police to come back knocking earlier than closing store.

“If we cannot continue reporting the way we wanted to and the way we feel safe to, ceasing operation is regrettably the only choice,” chief author Chris Yeung mentioned throughout a press convention Monday.

In the 18 months since Beijing imposed a sweeping nationwide safety legislation on Hong Kong, the road defining what can nonetheless be revealed with out breaking the legislation has turn out to be more and more blurred. That’s made it all of the tougher for journalists to know what the authorities think about acceptable, and what may land them in jail for years.

That means Hong Kong — as soon as residence to one in every of Asia’s most vibrant media scenes, and a spot that professes freedom of speech and freedom of the press — has misplaced nearly all its homegrown unbiased information shops. And, whereas the federal government has dismissed the concept press freedom has been undermined, the way forward for unbiased reporting seems to be more and more bleak.

“The government created this climate of self-censorship and fear, because the uncertainty of what is and is not illegal, and the uncertainty of what is and is not seditious is so blurred right now,” mentioned former Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism professor Lokman Tsui, who now lives within the Netherlands.

“On the one hand, it’s a story of a bunch of outlets being forced to close down,” he mentioned. “On the other hand, it’s really the story of how professional reporting in Hong Kong is now so dangerous that you might end up in jail.”

Blurred traces

Citizen News’ announcement did not come completely out of the blue.

Just days earlier, Stand News shut down after police raided its workplace and arrested seven folks related to the publication. The “fate of Stand News” triggered the choice by Citizen News, in line with Yeung, who can also be the previous chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The allegations towards Stand News contain a “conspiracy to publish seditious publications,” which stems from a colonial-era crimes ordinance and never the nationwide safety legislation imposed in 2020. The Hong Kong police who raided the outlet’s workplace are nationwide safety officers.

Ultimately, Citizen News could not be certain whether or not the tales it was asking reporters to jot down would violate rules, and opted to close to guard its employees, mentioned Daisy Li, the publication’s chief editor.

Citizen News chief editor Daisy Li Yuet-wah and Citizen News founder Chris Yeung Kin-hing arrive for a press conference.

To many onlookers, the outlet was yet one more casualty of the town’s more and more restrictive media atmosphere. Like Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News revealed articles important of presidency insurance policies.

The velocity with which the trade has been “gutted” over the previous two years is basically dramatic, in line with Sarah Cook, analysis director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at non-profit Freedom House.

Nearly a 12 months in the past, the Hong Kong authorities introduced it could change the director of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) with a public servant with none media expertise. RTHK’s program employees union responded by saying the station had misplaced its editorial independence. Since then, a partnership between RTHK and Chinese state media has raised considerations amongst press freedom advocates that the media group is more and more changing into a propaganda outlet.

Then, in June, a whole bunch of law enforcement officials raided the workplaces of long-running pro-democracy outlet Apple Daily. They arrested executives, froze its property beneath nationwide safety costs — and in the end prompted it to stop publication.

Police raid Apple Daily’s workplaces in Hong Kong in August 2020. Credit: Apple Daily

“[Hong Kong leader] Carrie Lam is patiently unraveling the substance of press freedom in Hong Kong,” Reporters Without Borders mentioned in a December 2021 report on China’s press freedoms.

Lam has performed down considerations. This week, she dismissed accusations that Citizen News and Stand News’ shutdowns had been associated to the nationwide safety legislation and pushed again towards the concept Hong Kong’s free press confronted collapse. She claimed that the shops made the choice to close on their very own.

“Nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong. And journalists and media organizations like all of us have to respect and comply with the law,” she mentioned Tuesday. “If they are fearful of not being able to comply with the law, then they have to make up their mind and take the necessary decisions.”

What occurs subsequent

Despite Lam’s insistence that there’s nonetheless freedom of the press in Hong Kong, the variety of unbiased media shops is quickly dwindling.

Although there are nonetheless main worldwide media shops — together with CNN and Bloomberg — working massive newsrooms within the metropolis, there are few vital native unbiased shops left, with specialists pointing to Chinese-language inmediahk.internet and the English-language Hong Kong Free Press as examples.

Various different shops are both backed by the Chinese state, or have mainland Chinese house owners. The metropolis’s largest English language paper South China Morning Post, for example, is owned by mainland Chinese tech big Alibaba.

There’s an expectation that any unbiased shops will seemingly turn out to be targets in the end, mentioned Hong Kong political commentator Joseph Cheng, who’s now primarily based in New Zealand. l

Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association Ronson Chan, left, and Chris Yeung pose during a press conference for the release of the organization's annual report on July 15, 2021.

Ronson Chan, the chair of the Hong Kong Journalist Association and a former editor at Stand News till it closed, agrees.

Free press may proceed on a small scale, he mentioned — however as soon as shops achieve an excessive amount of consideration and sources, they’ll seemingly turn out to be targets.

“The media is in a … serious crackdown,” Chan, whose residence was raided by police, instructed CNN Business. “The chilling effect will affect many decisions for the management of the other media.”

One year after Hong Kong's national security law, residents feel Beijing's tightening grip
For now, worldwide media have not confronted the identical challenges as native media, though some international journalists have been denied visas.
But Hong Kong’s future as a world media hub is in jeopardy. Just weeks after the nationwide safety legislation was imposed in 2020, the New York Times introduced it could transfer some employees out of Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea. The Washington Post additionally selected Seoul as the placement of its new Asia breaking information hub.
In a Foreign Correspondents’ Club survey of 99 Hong Kong-based journalists final 12 months, 84% mentioned the scenario for the media had deteriorated because the nationwide safety legislation was launched, and 46% mentioned they had been contemplating or had plans to go away the town as a result of decline in press freedoms.
For now, the media in Hong Kong remains to be nowhere close to as restricted as in mainland China, the place Beijing’s so-called “Great Firewall” of censors severely curtails web entry and journalist visas are troublesome to acquire.

But the town’s media atmosphere is shifting to turn out to be extra just like the mainland.

In the long run, Hong Kong may more and more discover itself in a scenario the place media coated the town from the surface — simply as media do with mainland China, Freedom House’s Cook mentioned.

And, mentioned Tsui, the town’s web may turn out to be extra restricted, and will see authorities blocking entry to articles it sees as controversial.

Why this issues

Experts additionally level out that the lack of native, unbiased shops in Hong Kong may additionally undermine the press’ position as an essential group watchdog.

That echoes the struggles that media organizations have had worldwide: In the United States, for example greater than 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004 and at the least 200 counties have been left with no newspaper in any respect, in line with a 2019 PEN America report.

“This is consistent across all countries, all cultures — if local journalism dies, corruption increases,” Tsui mentioned.

The drawback in Hong Kong, although, is that this pattern of native media closures has been coupled with different assaults on democracy.

Since the National Security Law was launched, almost all the metropolis’s main pro-democracy figures have both been jailed or gone into exile. Various organizations and unions have disbanded or left Hong Kong, together with the pro-democracy group that organized a few of the metropolis’s largest protests. And the nationwide safety legislation is not merely a risk — some activists have now been jailed beneath the act.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks at a press conference on December 30, 2021 in Hong Kong.

“The suppression of the pro-democracy movement meant that there was no toleration of an opposition, no toleration of checks and balances,” Cheng mentioned.

And when Stand News and Apple Daily closed, each publications additionally eliminated years of reporting from the web, taking with them a historic document of the town.

“It’s an obvious attempt to remove the memory of Hong Kong people,” mentioned Cheng.

There’s additionally a reputational price to Hong Kong, which has lengthy positioned itself as Asia’s world metropolis.

Following the raid on Stand News, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken known as on China and Hong Kong authorities to cease focusing on the town’s free and unbiased media, and uphold freedom of expression and entry to info.

“These freedoms enabled Hong Kong to flourish as a global center for finance, trade, education, and culture,” he mentioned in an announcement.

“By silencing independent media, [the People’s Republic of China] and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability. A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press,” he added.

Police officers carry news material and evidence in blue plastic boxes after searching the office of Stand News.

Despite heavy censorship in mainland China, Hong Kong does stay comparatively free. This has allowed it to behave as a type of gateway into the nation, and is why so many companies and media hubs have been primarily based within the metropolis

But as Hong Kong edges nearer to China, that is altering.

“Now even this little peek hole is becoming a black box,” Tsui mentioned. “What the world is losing is an insight into not just Hong Kong, but also an insight into what’s going on in China.”

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