SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Hong Kong’s status as one of Asia’s most thriving press hubs appears to be on life support with the onset of a new national security law imposed by China on the semi-autonomous territory this week.
The law, a response to the resurgence of pro-democracy protests over the past year, ostensibly aims to prevent secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces. Punishments for those crimes range from three years to life in prison.
But the legislation’s broad, vaguely worded provisions - which apply to locals, foreigners, and even people living in other countries - will drastically curtail freedom of speech, analysts warn.
“It says the government can do pretty much anything it wants,” says Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Butler says the territory is likely to see a period of testing as authorities reveal exactly how they intend to interpret and apply the law, but the uncertainty has already had chilling effects on free speech.
Signs of fear
In recent weeks, waves of Hong Kongers have downloaded virtual private networks, or VPNs, as well as encrypted messaging apps such as Signal, to hide their digital activities from authorities.
Some websites have removed posts or articles that were critical of China or sympathetic toward independence. Many Hong Kongers have deleted their social media profiles altogether.
“The entire media landscape is facing a new frontier,” says Sharron Fast, a lecturer in media law at the University of Hong Kong.
“There are many reports of media organizations being approached by authors to take down prior publications. So, editors are facing a very real conflict between the desire to retain previously 'lawful' publications and to preserve the historical record and the very real threats that authors face under the new law,” she says.
There are also signs that mainstream media outlets are altering their coverage of the protest movement, especially after Hong Kong officials on Thursday announced that certain prominent protest slogans amount to banned displays of separatism.
In a tweet Friday, the state-funded news outlet RTHK refused to even use the now banned slogan "Liberate Hong Kong," instead referring to it as "L******* #Hong Kong."
The move suggests that some journalists are now reluctant to report on sensitive issues, even when they do so in neutral terms.
“It has developed very fast and is terrifying,” says Emily Lau, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and current democracy activist.
Even though it isn’t yet clear whether simply uttering a banned protest phrase will result in an arrest and conviction, the chilling effect on the press is clear, Lau says.
Some international media outlets have found that a handful of civil society groups and activists in Hong Kong have halted giving on-the-record comments until they can determine how certain segments of the law will be applied.
“I mean, who knows what ‘provoking hatred toward the government’ means,” said a person with one non-profit organization, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
That statement is a reference to Article 29 of the new law, which among other things criminalizes working with a broad range of foreign organizations to provoke hatred among Hong Kong residents toward the local or mainland governments.
The law says both the individual and the foreign organization involved in the provocations can be punished with up to life in prison, even though officials have not clarified what “provoking hatred” means.
“Writing an article -- does that incite people to be hateful? We don’t know what counts,” says Tommy Walker, a British freelance journalist in Hong Kong.
“Everyone’s a bit worried,” says Walker, who like some other foreign journalists, are searching for backup options in case reporting in Hong Kong becomes untenable.
Walker says it is likely that local journalists and activists will be targeted first, but foreign journalists could also see major new restrictions.
New foreign media rules
According to Article 54 of the law, authorities must “strengthen the management” of foreign media outlets, nongovernmental organizations, and other international groups.
It is not clear what that means; but, it suggests tighter monitoring and stricter censorship, a major change for foreign journalists who used to be able to easily acquire visas and report from Hong Kong unmolested.
For now, the entry of foreign journalists into Hong Kong has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic; but, once the pandemic is over, some journalists say they’re not confident when they can return.
“I think the border will become a lot less predictable,” says William Yang, a Taiwanese journalist who frequently reports from Hong Kong.
“The risks and uncertainties are just so high,” he says. “And we don’t know where the line is.”
It applies to everyone...everywhere?
To some analysts, the most concerning part of the new legislation is its expansive territorial reach.
According to Article 38, the law applies even to offenses committed "outside the region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the region."
Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University, says the measure appears to be “asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.”
According to Clarke, that means if a U.S. newspaper columnist advocates Tibetan independence in their column, they would be liable under the Hong Kong national security law.
“If you’ve ever said anything that might offend the PRC or Hong Kong authorities, stay out of Hong Kong,” Clarke said in a post on the China Collection, a blog focused on Chinese current events.
Chinese officials have repeatedly maintained that the new law will not restrict freedoms of speech or the press, which are guaranteed in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution. The law, they insist, will only outlaw subversion, separatism, terrorism and foreign interference.
Hong Kong’s only member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Beijing’s top decision-making body, recently told the Nikkei Asian Review that the laws would apply to the media.
“There is no exception for people or businesses in the city,” said Tam Yiu-chung.
Asked whether journalists could be punished for reporting on sensitive issues, the pro-Beijing politician told Nikkei that companies should “seek professional legal advice.”
"We will have a carefully planned mechanism to evaluate actions case-by-case," he said. "We will have to prove, for example, that a person has a well-developed organization to initiate action that threatens national security."
Journalists not convinced
The overwhelming majority of Hong Kong journalists take no comfort in those assurances, according to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association just before the law was enacted.
Ninety-eight percent of survey respondents said they oppose the legislation. Ninety-two percent said they were worried about their personal safety. Eighty-seven percent said they believe the media would stop reporting on sensitive issues.
Press freedom in Hong Kong had already been on a downward trajectory for years. In 2002, Hong Kong ranked 18th in RSF’s Press Freedom Index. This year, the country ranked 80th.
As Beijing rapidly increases its influence in Hong Kong, many now fear the territory’s press freedom will plunge further, perhaps even closer to China, which ranks 177th out of 180 countries.