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Hong Kong’s Journalist Associations Call for Protection Under New Security Law

FILE - Police officers stop and check journalists near the Convention and Exhibition Center ahead of a ceremony to be held at the venue, in Hong Kong, July 1, 2022.
FILE - Police officers stop and check journalists near the Convention and Exhibition Center ahead of a ceremony to be held at the venue, in Hong Kong, July 1, 2022.

During the Hong Kong government’s recently ended monthlong public consultation period on a controversial new security law, which wrapped up last week, the city’s two main journalist associations voiced concerns that the law will have “profound” implications for journalists’ ability to do their work.

The proposed law, known locally as Article 23, will be an expansion of a national security law Beijing imposed on the city in 2020, outlawing secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

It would add treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets and espionage, sabotage endangering national security, and external interference as offenses, and would expand the scope and penalties for existing crimes, including sedition.

In their submissions to the Security Bureau as part of the consultation process, both the Hong Kong Journalists Association or HKJA and the FCCHK or Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong , each of which has about 300 journalist members, urged the government to add a public interest defense clause in the new law to protect journalists, on the grounds that, without intending to break the law, they could do so inadvertently in reporting the news.

The FCCHK, whose membership of more than 2,000 also includes diplomats, businesspeople, artists and others who support journalism, said it was "paramount" to do so, and urged the government to "keep press freedom front of mind and make it clear that journalists would not be targeted for doing their jobs."

The Hong Kong Journalists Association urged the government to “provide sufficient protection for the press in its draft bill and avoid causing irrevocable damage to press freedom.”

The two associations said the definition and scope of offenses in the consultation document for the upcoming legislation such as theft of state secrets, foreign interference and sedition were too broad and would affect the legitimate work of journalists.

The groups fear that journalists could be charged with stealing state secrets when obtaining leaked information from government sources, accused of abetting foreign interference when quoting overseas groups critical of the government, and construed as seditious when quoting government critics or running editorials critical of government policies.

Although the government has said it will try to strike a balance between protecting national security and protection of freedoms, including freedom of the press, journalist associations worry this can be applied subjectively.

The government “did not provide further explanation on what constitutes ‘necessary for safeguarding national security,’” the Hong Kong Journalists Association wrote, saying it “worries that this would grant unchecked powers to the Security Bureau, giving them authority to curb the operations of local news organizations or industry groups, without the need to submit evidence to court or even make its reasons public.”

The association also suggested that the law only be applied if the government can prove a defendant’s intention to endanger national security and actual material damage to national security.

In a survey it conducted last month, all of the 160 journalists and other news media respondents said Article 23 would harm press freedom, with 90% believing the impact would be large.

Most respondents also agreed the scope and terminology in the proposed law was too broad and vague, and expressed worries they would inadvertently break the law.

Hong Kong’s government credits the national security law Beijing imposed on the city in 2020 for restoring safety and order in the city, which was rocked by widespread, and sometimes violent, pro-democracy protests in 2019.

It says it is also necessary to adopt the proposed additional home-grown security law because Hong Kong faces lingering national security threats and must prevent a recurrence of protests to ensure its safety and prosperity.

The government issued a statement last Wednesday saying the vast majority of those commenting on the proposal supported it, adding that it was “pleased that society has reached consensus to complete the legislation as early as possible.”

It hopes to adopt the law later this year.

The Security Bureau has not responded to VOA’s request for comment about journalists’ concerns, but in a previous response, it said “Hong Kong residents enjoy the freedoms of the press and speech” but that these freedoms “are not absolute, and can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Journalists, like everyone else, have an obligation to abide by all the laws, it said.

In its annual World Press Freedom Index last year, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, ranked Hong Kong 140th out of 180 countries and regions.

Despite what many believe to be increasing restrictions on journalism in Hong Kong, those still in the profession persist in doing their work, including holding the government accountable, albeit with greater caution.

At a press conference last week after Financial Secretary Paul Chan presented the new budget for the coming fiscal year, with a ballooning deficit and lower than hoped for projected government revenue, journalists asked him tough questions.

One asked whether it was wise to put on monthly firework shows at Hong Kong’s famed Victoria Harbour at a cost of about $128,000 each time.

Chan said these would be a lot cheaper and smaller scale than the New Year’s fireworks, and would entice tourists to stay overnight and spend more money.

Other journalists asked why there wasn’t more social welfare spending as well as financial subsidies for residents, since the economy has not fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chan said it was more important to focus spending on stimulating economic growth so that everyone can benefit.

Another journalist fired off two questions in succession and was about to ask a third, prompting Chan to request: “Could I first answer the first two?” The reporter insisted she had already informed him beforehand that she would ask three questions. He quietly let her ask the question.

Independent media are also still able to publish reports on sensitive topics, including a roundup of events that occurred since the national security law was adopted, highlighting the jailing of a veteran activist for a protest that did not take place and artistic performances that were canceled over national security issues.

It’s crucial for Hong Kong’s media to be able to do all of that and much more, according to the associations.

In its submission, the Hong Kong Journalists Association emphasized that “the press is not a threat to national security.

“Journalism serves to enhance transparency in public governance as well as promote good governance,” it said.

The Foreign Correspondents Club in its letter stated: “The freedom of press, publication and speech is one of the cornerstones contributing to the success of Hong Kong. … Protecting those rights and freedoms … is crucial for preserving Hong Kong’s role as an international business and media centre.”

It remains to be seen whether the government will adopt their recommendations.