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Hong Kong Stifles Journalists With Threats, Expulsions a Year After Sweeping Security Law

FILE - Supporters of Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy, fined for accessing a public database for an investigative report, hold placards outside a court in Hong Kong, April 22, 2021.
FILE - Supporters of Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy, fined for accessing a public database for an investigative report, hold placards outside a court in Hong Kong, April 22, 2021.

Independent journalists in Hong Kong are facing renewed pressure from the government following a year of changes that rocked the city’s media and raised fears of being deported or arrested.

Since Beijing ushered in a national security law last year that criminalizes many forms of dissent, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been targeted, with dozens of activists charged following large-scale demonstrations in 2019.

But the broadly written security legislation also has been used to stifle press freedom, with recent cases that underscore how intimidating the atmosphere has become for journalists.

Threatening complaints

Take Matthew Brooker, an editor and columnist for Bloomberg Opinion who came under fire last month for a September article. In the piece, Brooker labeled the upcoming Hong Kong elections as “meaningless” given the lack of true competition or participation.

That’s because in March, Beijing passed reforms for the Legislative Council with a goal of ensuring that “patriots” rule Hong Kong. Among other things, the changes reduce the number of the council members who are elected by the public to 20, while setting the number of members chosen by a pro-Beijing committee to 40.

Election campaigns historically have been an upbeat time in Hong Kong, with pro-democracy activists at the heart of the action. Now, with dozens of political figures under national security law charges, pro-democracy groups and voters won't be participating.

Hong Kong government official Erick Tsang, the secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, didn’t like Brooker’s report. In a threatening letter, Tsang called the column’s argument “groundless,” accused Brooker of “fear-mongering” and said Brooker had tried to discredit Hong Kong’s electoral system, which he criticized as “extremely deplorable.”

The fiercely worded letter showcases the souring relationship between the Hong Kong government and the city’s press. According to local media, the Hong Kong Government has sent at least 130 letters to local and foreign media in 2021 alone, mostly in opposition to reports about the effects of the national security law and the electoral reforms.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) – a government agency – has seen executive changes that have reshaped the internal structure of the broadcaster, including the cancelation of shows, criticism of promoting state propaganda and an exodus of staff.

Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close its doors after 24 years after executives – including founder Jimmy Lai – were arrested and charged under the security law.

And the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) has faced mounting pressure from the city’s authorities and government officials, who have claimed the group is biased.

FILE - Copies of the final edition of Apple Daily are seen at a newsstand in Hong Kong, June 24, 2021.
FILE - Copies of the final edition of Apple Daily are seen at a newsstand in Hong Kong, June 24, 2021.

Visa game

Journalists are finding it difficult to remain in the Chinese city. Last month, Sue-Lin Wong, China correspondent for The Economist, was denied a renewal of her work visa in Hong Kong.

Zanny Minton Beddoes, the editor-in-chief at the Economist, said in a statement the denial came without explanation. “We urge the government of Hong Kong to maintain access for the foreign press, which is vital to the territory’s standing as an international city,” she said.

With China and Australia at odds over trade and the origins of COVID19, Australian Wong may have been a geopolitical victim. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said it’s up to the city’s immigration agency to decide on visa applications.

But then Lam cited her own situation, confirming she had been denied a visa to enter the United States. Lam was one of several top Chinese officials sanctioned by Washington in August 2020 because of the national security law.

Wong isn’t the first foreign journalist to be disinvited. Victor Mallet, with the Financial Times, Chris Buckley of The New York Times and Aaron McNicholas for English-language Hong Kong Free Press all have been denied visas in recent years.

The lack of clear explanation for Wong’s ouster is chilling, according to one international journalist who requested anonymity to avoid targeting by authorities. “Each time the red line shifts here it quickly becomes normalized. It feels Hong Kong isn’t facing a crackdown but actually a complete transformation,” he said.

“I think whatever the reason, kicking out an Economist correspondent means they would expel anyone from any organization. Seems they no longer care what the international community thinks.”

Responding to Wong’s case, the Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCCHK) has requested clarity on the journalist visa requirements. A recent member survey from the club found that 84% of those who participated agree the media environment in Hong Kong has deteriorated since the national security law.

Defining ‘fake’ news

The potential introduction of a “fake news” law in Hong Kong is of great concern to correspondents.

Government officials have teased the prospect of a law that would regulate misiformation, doxxing and unverified reports. Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee, however, has said it would only be enacted as a “last resort.”

Johan Nylander, Asia Correspondent for Sweden’s Dagen Industri, told VOA that a fake news law would create a “dangerous situation.”

“They decide what’s ‘fake’… anything they don’t like, anything that is sensitive from Beijing’s perspective. Especially Taiwan, the origin of the [pandemic] virus, sexual affairs connected to the political members [and] also economic data – and that’s something that worries bank CEOs that I speak with,” he said.

Already, journalists are being watched more closely. Hong Kong’s Land Registry and Companies Registry now requires users to supply more personal information when conducting data searches. It’s led to fear among journalists that by providing personal details, the information may be used against them.

In April, a Hong Kong court found former RTHK producer Bao Choy guilty of making false statements in her quest to obtain vehicle information about the Yuen Long attacks in Hong Kong in 2019.

Choy had used the information for an award-winning documentary that investigated the response from Hong Kong police during the incident, in which a mob of white-shirted, armed assailants attacked citizens and commuters returning home after a protest.