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Hong Kong Free Press ‘Gutted’ | ASEAN Post

Last year, two of Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy media outlets were toppled after massive government pressure, a spate of arrests and police raids on their newsrooms.

A third organization – Citizen News, five years old – announced last week that it would also be shutting down. But unlike Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News did not wait for the police to come knocking on the door before shutting down.

“If we can’t continue to report how we wanted and how safe we ​​feel, unfortunately ceasing is the only choice,” editor-in-chief Chris Yeung said during a press conference on Monday.

In the 18 months since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, the line defining what can still be released without breaking the law has become increasingly blurred. This has made it even more difficult for journalists to know what authorities consider acceptable, and what could lead them to jail for years.

This means that Hong Kong – once home to one of Asia’s most vibrant media scenes and a place that professes free speech and press freedom – has lost nearly all of its local independent news outlets. And, as the government has rejected the idea that press freedom has been undermined, the future of independent reporting looks increasingly bleak.

“The government has 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 hazy right now.” said the former journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lokman Tsui, who now lives in the Netherlands.

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

Blurred lines

The Citizen News announcement did not come entirely out of the blue.

Days earlier, Stand News had closed its doors after police raided its offices and arrested seven people associated with the publication. The “fate of Stand News” triggered Citizen News’ decision, according to Yeung, who is also the former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The allegations against Stand News involve a “conspiracy to publish seditious publications,” which stems from a colonial-era crimes ordinance, not the National Security Act imposed in 2020. Hong Kong Police who raided the office of the point of sale are national security agents.

In the end, Citizen News couldn’t be sure that the stories it was asking reporters to write would violate regulations and chose to shut down to protect its staff, said Daisy Li, the publication’s chief editor.

For many onlookers, the outlet was yet another victim of the city’s increasingly restrictive media environment. Like Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News has published articles critical of government policies.

The speed at which the industry has been “gutted” over the past two years is truly dramatic, according to Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the nonprofit Freedom House.

Almost a year ago, the Hong Kong government announced that it would replace the director of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) with an official with no media experience. RTHK’s program staff union responded by saying the station had lost editorial independence. Since then, a partnership between the RTHK and Chinese state media has raised concerns among press freedom advocates that the media group will increasingly become a means of propaganda.

Then, in June, hundreds of police raided the offices of the pro-democracy Apple Daily. They arrested executives, froze his assets for national security reasons, and ultimately made him stop posting.

“[Hong Kong leader] Carrie Lam patiently disentangles the substance of press freedom in Hong Kong, “Reporters Without Borders said in a December 2021 report on press freedom in China.

Lam played down the concerns. This week, she dismissed accusations that the Citizen News and Stand News shutdowns were linked to the National Security Act and rebuffed the idea that Hong Kong’s free press was in danger of collapsing. She claimed that the outlets made the decision to close themselves.

“Nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong. And journalists and media like all of us must respect and comply with the law,” she said Tuesday. “If they are worried that they will not be able to comply with the law, then they have to make up their minds and make the necessary decisions.”

What happens next

Despite Lam’s insistence that press freedom still exists in Hong Kong, the number of independent media is declining rapidly.

While there are still major international media outlets – including CNN and Bloomberg – that operate large newsrooms in the city, few major independent local media remain, with experts pointing to Chinese-language and the Hong Kong Free Press in English as examples.

A number of other outlets are either supported by the Chinese state or have mainland Chinese owners. The city’s largest English-language newspaper, South China Morning Post, for example, is owned by Chinese tech giant Alibaba.

Any independent outlet is expected to likely become a target sooner or later, said Hong Kong political commentator Joseph Cheng, who is now based in New Zealand.

Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and former editor of Stand News until it closed, agrees.

Free press could continue on a small scale, he said – but once the media attracts too much attention and resources, they will likely become targets.

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

So far, the international media have not faced the same challenges as the local media, although some foreign journalists have been denied visas.

But Hong Kong’s future as a global media hub is in jeopardy. Just weeks after the National Security Law was imposed in 2020, The New York Times reported it would move some staff from Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea. The Washington Post has also chosen Seoul as the location of its new breaking news center in Asia.

In a Foreign Correspondents’ Club survey of 99 Hong Kong-based journalists last year, 84% said the media situation had deteriorated since the introduction of the National Security Act, and 46% said said they were considering or were planning to leave town due to declining press freedoms.

For now, the media in Hong Kong is still nowhere near as restricted as it is in mainland China, where Beijing’s so-called “Great Firewall” severely restricts internet access and journalist visas are being issued. difficult to obtain.

But the city’s media environment is evolving to become more similar to that of the mainland.

In the future, Hong Kong may increasingly find itself in a situation where the media covers the city from outside – just as the media does with mainland China, Freedom House’s Cook said.

And, Tsui said, the city’s internet could become more restricted and authorities could block access to articles it considers controversial.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The ASEAN Post.

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