26 April 2022

Hong Kong’s free press is in tatters


Two days ago, former policeman and security chief John Lee – anointed by Beijing to replace Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive Carrie Lam – told a reporter there was ‘no need’ to ‘defend’ press freedom in Hong Kong because it ‘exists’.

Yesterday, the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) of Hong Kong cancelled its annual Human Rights Press Awards, causing at least three distinguished members of the club’s press freedom committee to resign in protest.

Contrast these two incidents and one thing is clear: John Lee is lying, press freedom in Hong Kong is in tatters, and the decision by the FCC to bottle it over its human rights press awards is just the latest blow to any remaining vestiges of media freedom in the city.

A major new report from Hong Kong Watch will today confirm this, by providing a comprehensive round-up of the hammer-blows that have hit press freedom in Hong Kong over the past three years.

‘In the Firing Line: The Crackdown on Media Freedom in Hong Kong’ draws on interviews with more than ten former Hong Kong journalists, from the now defunct Apple Daily as well as Ming Pao, TVB and the former public service broadcaster turned Chinese Communist Party propaganda outlet, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). The report includes insights from veteran broadcaster and journalist Stephen Vines, who lived in Hong Kong for 35 years and was a presenter on RTHK, as well as former South China Morning Post editor Mark Clifford. And it traces the all-out assault by Beijing and its quislings on the media in Hong Kong.

From police violence targeted at journalists and media crews during the protests in 2019, to the police raids on newsrooms in 2021; from financial coercion to outright censorship; from draconian legislation leading to the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists and the closure of pro-democracy and independent publications, to the weaponisation of visas for foreign correspondents and restrictions on access to public records – the pattern is clear.

In researching this report, I spoke to journalists who told me they had been tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed at close range by police in 2019, even though they were wearing high visibility jackets with the words ‘Press’ emblazoned on them. What was designed to protect them apparently made them targets. 

One foreign photographer working for the South China Morning Post told me that once, when he and other media workers were taking a break by the side of the road, and had taken off their protective masks, the police came by and sprayed teargas into their faces. ‘The hatred that the police showed against the media is shocking,’ he said.

According to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) – an organisation whose very future lies in the balance – of the 222 journalists who responded to a survey, only 28 said they had not experienced violence when covering the protests. 

Former TVB news anchor Chris Wong told me that when he was reading the news on the day that pro-democracy district councillor Andrew Chiu was attacked and his ear was bitten off, he was presented with a very odd script. Even though photographs and footage clearly showed the incident, the script that the editor provided, according to Wong, ‘said that Mr Chiu’s ear fell off naturally. Nobody did anything, it was not a bite, and the ear just fell to the floor’. The editors, Wong says, ‘did not want to cover violence by pro-Beijing supporters’.

The draconian National Security Law, imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in July 2020, has led to the forced closure of almost all remaining independent media outlets, the sacking or resignation of independent-minded reporters in RTHK and the decision by RTHK to erase its archive of most articles and reports over the past few years.

The near-total elimination of independent media has emboldened the pro-Beijing press to be even more aggressive in hounding the regime’s critics. I myself was recently the target of a full-page attack, consisting of five different articles, on the organisation I lead, by pro-Beijing propaganda newspaper Ta Kung Pao.

So what can, and should, we do about this?

First, speak out, shine a spotlight and do not believe the lies spouted by Beijing’s mouthpieces. Governments should raise cases of jailed journalists at every opportunity, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion should be monitoring the situation very closely. 

Second, the free world should put in place a special lifeline for Hong Kong journalists who need to get out fast. Britain already has a very generous scheme for Hongkongers who hold British National Overseas (BNO) status, and Canada and Australia have welcome lifeboat schemes, but there is more that could be done. Special emergency travel documents and visas could be issued to fast-track journalists in need of sanctuary.

Third, Beijing and its cronies must not be allowed to get away with dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms, including press freedom, with no consequence. If they think they can do this with impunity, they will only intensify repression at home and become ever more aggressive overseas.

I live in London, and Hong Kong Watch is a UK-registered charity with no entity or personnel whatsoever in Hong Kong. Yet I have been threatened with a prison sentence under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, and received a letter from the Hong Kong Police Force demanding we take down our website.

I may be the first foreign activist to be threatened under the extraterritoriality clause of Hong Kong’s law, but I doubt I will be the last, and while the threats will not silence me, if they are allowed to continue unchallenged, the long arm of Beijing may encroach ever further into our freedoms at home. So, it is time for targeted sanctions – against those in Beijing who have destroyed Hong Kong’s liberties and way of life, and their accomplices in the Hong Kong puppet regime.

In 2019, journalists, photographers and camera crews were literally in the firing line. In 2021, they were in line for being fired. Today, even those of us outside Hong Kong who dare to speak the truth are putting ourselves at risk. That is why it is time to speak out and act.

I began my working career as a journalist, fresh out of university, in Hong Kong. At the time it was a vibrant hub of dynamic, thriving, fearless, noisy independent journalism. It is heartbreaking to see the shutters come down on what was once one of Asia’s most open cities.

I used to be a proud member of the FCC in Hong Kong. Until recently I regarded it as a bastion of courageous defence of press freedom. Its wobble yesterday is deeply troubling. 

And John Lee’s lies the day before are a sign of worse to come. The appointment – unopposed – of a policeman as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive marks the completion of its transformation from open society to police state. And with that, the death of press freedom.

Yet we have just celebrated Easter, and with that comes the reminder: death does not have to be the last word – if we fight for it. 

A week today we will mark World Press Freedom Day. Let’s ensure it means something.

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Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer, and the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.