Journalism is under siege in Hong Kong
Luwei Rose Luqiu is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong. She studies censorship, propaganda, and social movements and earned her doctorate in mass communication from Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of the recently published book Coverage of protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
The Hong Kong government has warned the the Wall Street newspaper that a newspaper editorial on the Hong Kong elections could have violated Chinese electoral laws by tricking voters to avoid the ballot box or to vote blank. Therefore, the government said, it reserved the right to take any action it deemed necessary, whether the violation was committed in Hong Kong or abroad.
Over the past year, according to local media reports, the Hong Kong government has sent at least 136 of these letters to international media, local newspapers in foreign countries and even academic journals to criticize allegedly biased reporting. , distorted, misleading or inaccurate. . Of these letters, around 50 concerned the National Security Law and pro-democracy activists prosecuted for violating it, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, and around 30 others linked to Hong Kong’s electoral system, which ensures that only those Beijing has deemed “patriotic” run the city.
The government’s direct response to external criticism – rather than humble acceptance or at least efforts to improve the government’s reputation of the SAR through âsoftâ methods such as public relations – is revealing. This shows that the current government officials are in tune with the Chinese government and, in particular, Xi Jinping’s call for a “fighting spirit” in the international communications of Chinese officials and greater control over the narrative. China international.
Foreign media are also being punished for their precise coverage of the situation in Hong Kong since the crackdown on the 2019 protests. Thus, some of their journalists were unable to obtain visa renewals from the Hong Kong government and were forced to leave town. While Beijing has long used visa issuance as a tactic to control and punish critical voices overseas, for Hong Kong-based foreign media professionals, the National Security Act adds an extra layer of regulations that often leave uncertain whether the content of a given story, or even the subject, will be considered prohibited. Hong Kong’s status as a media hub for the Asia-Pacific region has also declined, with some media organizations relocating significant numbers of permanent staff to other Asian cities such as Seoul and Taipei due to security concerns raised. by the behavior of the SAR government after the passage of the National Security Act.
Local media and workers in Hong Kong face even greater challenges and pressures than their overseas counterparts. Apple Daily was forced to cease publication in June 2021, and Jimmy Lai and other senior executives and staff, including the senior editor of an editorial identified as particularly subversive, are currently in jail for violating various privacy laws. national security. Local police specifically highlighted several articles calling on foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong and insisted that the prosecution of the author of the editorial had nothing to do with press freedom.
Just a few days ago, Chris Tang, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary, denounced News from the stand, a pro-democracy online outlet, for what it described as biased and misleading stories, particularly reporting demonizing law enforcement and, during protests in 2019, glorifying the violent behavior of protesters anti-government. Mr. Tang’s comments raised concerns over whether authorities were targeting News from the stand for violations of national security in preparation for actions such as those taken against Apple Daily. While declining to discuss any individual case, he warned:
“Anyone or any organization, no matter what they use to disguise themselves, whether it is the media or a non-governmental organization, if they want to break the law or endanger national security, we will certainly find evidence to prove that you are breaking the law. “
Mr. Tang also targeted the Hong Kong Journalists Association on the grounds that the organization was “infiltrating” schools in an attempt to attract student journalists, pointedly asking the association’s representative to explain why so many of its members were students. The background to the latest complaint is the unilateral decision by Hong Kong police last year to exclude most online journalists and students from their definition of “media representative”, a change which officials say officials say. served to facilitate the maintenance of order. on the front line of protests.
The official media owned or controlled by the government, as the spokesperson for the state, are often seen by foreigners as organs of propaganda. Some countries, like the United States, subject these outlets to registration and regulation as foreign agents, a move that the public generally does not view as a restriction on press freedom. However, efforts by governments to assimilate private media reporting opposing voices with political groups or foreign government agents in the name of national security raise fundamental questions about the media landscape. The question is how to distinguish activism from journalism, who defines those terms, the implications of registration and regulatory policies for press freedom, and how journalists working for organizations that criticize governments can protect themselves. against retaliation.
At the very least, the criticisms and accusations by the Hong Kong government against media organizations, whether international or local, have an immediate impact in terms of incitement to self-censorship by law enforcement agencies. press and media professionals. The freezing effect of the formwork Apple Daily naturally left editors wary of what stories to cover and how to cover them. Such concerns were not a hallmark of journalism in Hong Kong before the National Security Law was passed, so journalists were free to report even stories that the Chinese government deemed sensitive. When those whose coverage criticized the government were forced to leave the mainland, Hong Kong had been their first choice as an alternative place to continue their work. In addition, criticism of the Hong Kong government was part of normal everyday discourse which, rather than eliciting criticism from officials, was rather seen as a symbol of the tolerant, rational and free society of Hong Kong within the framework. of the politics of a country with two systems. .
Hong Kong’s media system is therefore undergoing a fundamental change, moving from a libertarian system to an authoritarian system. Private media outlets still exist, but they now operate under strict government control. Nonetheless, unlike in mainland China, Hong Kong residents continue to enjoy unlimited internet access, so independent online media are still able to offer alternative voices. Of course, these alternative media face political and financial pressures, but, at least for now, their presence leaves many possibilities open for a return to a freer media environment.