Intellasia East Asia News – Hong Kong’s independent press faces dark chapter in China’s shadow

On Monday when Zoe*, a local news reporter at Apple Daily returned to her office in Hong Kong it was swarming with police officers. Her boss, the strident pro-democracy activist, media mogul and billionaire Jimmy Lai, was in handcuffs as police led him through the newsroom.

Cordons were set up blocking journalists from their desks as police rifled through papers and packed 25 boxes of documents for further investigation. Zoe was ordered to tell the police her home address and phone number and the section of the paper that she worked on. For hours, staffers were followed wherever they went in the building, even to the toilet. She was told not to report on the raid.

“The place was absolutely packed with police guarding every corner and stairway. I was terrified,” she said, asking not to disclose her name. “When I saw my boss being handcuffed and led away, I felt so heartbroken and helpless. I feel so angry,” she said.

Related: US imposes sanctions on leader Carrie Lam over Hong Kong crackdown

After authorities arrested Lai at his home on vague charges of collusion under Hong Kong’s newly implemented national security bill, hundreds of police officers raided the headquarters of his paper, Apple Daily. Lai was bailed 40 hours later. His arrest and the raid on his paper signal what journalists and media observers say is the clearest sign the city’s independent free press has now entered a new, darker chapter.

“China sees the role of the media as to serve the regime … now it is imposing this view on Hong Kong,” said Mak Yin Ting, veteran journalist and former chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Eliminating critical voices

Over the past two decades, Hong Kong has seen its media freedoms steadily deteriorate as the Chinese government has co-opted media owners and advertisers while business people with strong ties in the mainland have taken major stakes in local media. The city’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index has fallen from 18th in 2002 to 73rd in 2019.

But major outlets like Apple Daily – a tabloid known for its sensational coverage and one of few Hong Kong publications willing to criticise the Beijing-backed government and China’s ruling Chinese Communist party – have been key exceptions. By publishing critical coverage, they tested the boundaries of what was acceptable in mainstream media.

“There used to be a delicate balance in the sense that the state used their ways to maintain a significant degree of control of the press, but it was not complete,” said Francis Lee, director at the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University Hong Kong (CUHK).

“There was a certain way to play the game. Right now the game is changing, They are now really trying to gain tighter control or even try to gain complete control,” he said.

Public broadcaster RTHK, another key outlet for critical coverage, is now under government review after having one of its satirical political shows cancelled in May. The news directors of iCable and NowTV, two major broadcast stations also known for their independent coverage, have recently been replaced.

Foreign media outlets are also likely to come under added pressure as officials float the idea of an accreditation system – a method often used against foreign journalists in mainland China. The Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong has said that several international outlets have experienced long delays in processing visas for journalists. A pro-Beijing paper reported that Hong Kong’s immigration department has set up a new national security unit to review visas.

While this week’s detention of Lai – a high-profile activist who has been arrested before for his support of pro-democracy protests – was expected, the very public raid of the paper’s offices and arrests of Lai’s associates as well as his two sons was not. The sweep was broadcast on livestreams.

“It’s a theatre, which is purely for creating a chilling effect,” said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism also at CUHK, who focuses on mainland Chinese media. “The current strategy is picking a few prominent cases to elicit self censorship among journalists,” he said.

Experts say that by making an example of Apple Daily, authorities can eliminate key voices of dissent as well as inspire self censorship across the city. It is a strategy that would bring Hong Kong’s media environment closer in line with outlets on the mainland, which are subject to severe but vague rules that encourage editors, reporters as well as sources to censor themselves.

Journalists working in Hong Kong say the environment has already worsened, with experts and residents declining to discuss topics they fear will put them at risk under the broadly applied security law.

Daisy Li, editor-in-chief of the online media CitizenNew, said she expected authorities to now harass or try to close a number of smaller online news websites, also known for their independent and critical coverage. “They will come one day. It’s just a matter of time,” she said.

‘A strong memory of freedom’

However, it is not clear that the campaign will work. Hours after the police raid on Apple Daily, staff returned to push out the next day’s paper, printing five times as many copies as normal. Residents began queuing from 2am to purchase copies in support while investors bought shares in Next Digital, the paper’s parent company, sending its share price soaring.

On Tuesday evening, protesters gathered at several shopping malls chanting in demonstration against the arrest of Lai and others. Rights advocates say those acts of protest show how difficult it will be to replicate the mainland’s level of media control in Hong Kong.

“In Hong Kong people know what are their values. You have a population with a strong memory of freedom. I have no doubt the authorities are going to try, but the resistance is going to be there,” said Maya Wang at Human Rights Watch.

Apple Daily has also remained defiant, pledging on its front page on Tuesday to “fight on”. George*, an Apple Daily reporter, said he and many of his colleagues would stay as long as they could. “This is an opposition paper, we chose to be here so we expected this would come one day,” he said.

“Under the new law, the authorities can close us. There is not much we can do.” Still, he said: “We’re inclined to stay.”

Like many journalists, Zoe did not believe government assurances that the new security law would not hurt the city’s civil liberties, such as an independent free press. Still, she has been shocked by the speed and severity of the government’s measures.

“Today it is Apple Daily, tomorrow it could be one of the online media outlets. Our society will be left with only one voice.”

*Not their real name


Category: Hong Kong

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