The continued targeting of pro-democracy journalists and publications is sending a chilling message to Hong Kong’s media, with experts warning of a devastating impact on press freedom in the city, reported BBC’s Andreas Illmer.
Experts said, press freedom is being blatantly violated under the national security law, enacted in June 2020 as a response to years of mounting pro-democracy protests.
The controversial law criminalises secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“Press freedom is withering and mired in uncertainty,” Chris Yeung, a veteran journalist and former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, told the BBC.
On Sunday night, Hong Kong police announced that they had arrested a former senior journalist with the now-shut Apple Daily at the airport as he was trying to leave the city.
Apple Daily closed down after officials arrested its senior leadership under the city’s controversial national security law and froze its assets. Its owner, media mogul Jimmy Lai, was already in jail on a string of charges.
News of the arrest came hours after Stand News – popular with pro-democracy supporters – said it would shelve commentary pieces over fears of a crackdown.
Stand News is one of the last openly pro-democratic publications now left in the city. It was among a handful of relatively new online news portals that gained prominence during the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
“The arrests worsened the feeling of fear prevalent among journalists since the enactment of the national security law,” Yeung added. “The closure of Apple Daily has worsened the chilling effect on the media.”
The law was initially used against activists and protest leaders, but in recent months authorities have been targeting media outlets, with Apple Daily the first casualty.
Media reports suggest that like Apple Daily’s editors and owner Jimmy Lai, the journalist arrested on Sunday would also be charged under the national security law.
“The Hong Kong authorities’ actions against Apple Daily are outrageous and unacceptable because they blatantly violate media freedom, and treat independent journalism as a crime,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told the BBC.
“China’s leaders obviously intend to intimidate other smaller media outlets and their journalists by showing that critical reporting will be punished.”
The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association has criticised the latest arrest and asked police for an explanation.
Authorities in Hong Kong and on the mainland insist that the press can continue to operate freely and openly – the city’s top official Carrie Lam said after the Apple Daily raid that “normal journalistic work” would not be affected, although she did not elaborate.
Chinese officials have repeatedly said media freedoms in Hong Kong are respected, but are not absolute.
In May, the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association released a report saying the territory’s press freedom index for journalists had hit a record low, warning that “after the enactment of Hong Kong National Security Law, the Government continued to suppress the news media.”
“Of the 367 responding journalists, 91% said press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened compared to a year ago,” the report found. “As many as 85% of the responding journalists agree with comments that the Hong Kong government is the source of suppressing press freedom.”
Notably, this was before the crackdown on Apple Daily.
Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club said the closure of the paper was “a blow to the journalism community in Hong Kong and raises legitimate concerns over the future of press freedom in the city.”
Earlier, cyber activists had used the same approach to archive documentaries by the city’s public broadcaster RTHK, after the media outlet said it would remove some of its older material. RTHK used to be critical of the government, but this has changed after authorities installed new management there.
“If Xi Jinping and the authoritarians in Beijing have their way, there will be no press freedom left in Hong Kong,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said. “Every step and action they have taken shows that to be their ultimate goal.” (Source: BBC)