11 August 2020

Press freedom in Hong Kong has now been killed – it’s time to act


The image of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai in handcuffs as two hundred police officers raid the offices of his Apple Daily newspaper, symbolises yet another brazen attack on Hong Kong’s rapidly evaporating civil liberties – and a death knell for press freedom. As the last Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten said yesterday, “this is the most outrageous assault yet on what is left of Hong Kong’s free press” and represents “another large step towards turning Hong Kong into a replica of Beijing’s police state.”

For decades, Mr Lai, 71, has been one of Hong Kong’s most high-profile champions of democracy and is a frequent participant in peaceful protests. His paper Apple Daily has long been the only mass circulation, pro-democracy Chinese language newspaper in the city. It was, simply, the final bastion of a free press.

Last year he met US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to draw international attention to the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, and in 2020 he was has already been arrested twice on charges of illegal assembly. But his arrest yesterday – his first under Hong Kong’s new draconian national security law – takes Beijing’s campaign against this courageous entrepreneur to a whole new level. Facing charges of collusion with foreign political forces, which could carry a life sentence, he is accused by Chinese state media of “instigating hatred, spreading rumours and smearing Hong Kong authorities and the mainland for years”.

What is even more sinister is that two of Mr Lai’s sons were also arrested, as well as senior executives of his media company Next Digital, while journalists in the Apple Daily newsroom were harassed and threatened.

Former Washington Post correspondent Keith Richburg, now director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said he has never seen a raid of a newsroom like this before, even in some of the world’s most authoritarian states. He told RTHK that yesterday was “the day press freedom officially died. It didn’t die a natural death. It was killed. It was killed by Beijing, Carrie Lam and Hong Kong police.”

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong agreed, saying: “The arrests, and the raid on the newsroom, are a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation.”

The police crackdown yesterday did not only hit Apple Daily. A freelance reporter for Britain’s ITN, Wilson Li, was among others arrested, as was prominent young activist Agnes Chow, accused of “inciting secession”. The new national security law, imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing on July 1st, means trials can be conducted in secret, by Beijing-appointed judges and even potentially held across the border in mainland China.

The world – and Britain in particular – must respond rapidly and robustly to this further escalation in Beijing’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

First, it must be made clear that the eyes of the world are on each and every one of those arrested, to ensure as far as possible that they are not mistreated. Unambiguous demands for their immediate release must be made, and promptly.

But we ought to know by now that Beijing is unlikely to respond to mere statements. Concrete pressure is needed.

Britain and other like-minded allies must now follow the United States in imposing targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, other senior Hong Kong government and police officials and Chinese Communist Party leaders.

British expatriate police officers serving in the Hong Kong police should not be immune from international accountability. Those who have been responsible for or complicit with human rights violations over the past year – and the enforcement of this draconian law that is in breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration – must be held accountable. Britain should consider what measures could be taken against their assets in the United Kingdom – and support should be given to an initiative led by Hong Kong Watch Fellow Luke de Pulford to pursue a private prosecution against them.

Efforts should also be stepped up at the United Nations. Hong Kong needs the scrutiny of this world body. A UN special rapporteur for human rights in Hong Kong and a UN special envoy should be appointed to ensure that the intensification in repression in Hong Kong is monitored, reported and brought to light. If there is one thing that the butchers in Beijing hate most, it is the glare of daylight on their dark deeds.

As a former journalist who began his career in Hong Kong just after the handover, I understand the importance of press freedom. It is a litmus test of freedom itself, and when it is under assault, it means any last vestiges of liberty are gone.

The world should focus on doing everything possible to stop the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms. But we must also prepare for the fact that life is becoming intolerable in what was once one of Asia’s freest cities, and be ready to help those who need to get out. Like-minded countries should coordinate an international lifeboat rescue package, to ensure that between us we welcome those who need a place of sanctuary.

This is no longer just a fight for Hong Kong’s freedoms. Beijing has declared an all-out assault on freedom itself, and if it is allowed to get away with it, it will not stop with Hong Kong. Taiwan is in its sights, and our own freedoms will be next.

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Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.

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