Unfreedom Monitor Report: Hong Kong

Image courtesy Ameya Nagarajan

Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract, about Hong Kong's control and censorship of the internet, is from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.

At the time of this report, tools of digital authoritarianism may not be as directly and overtly employed as in China, but Hong Kong has seen a drastic shift in discourses and state narratives in relation to press freedom and freedom of expression. The National Security Law (NSL), which was introduced in June 2020 by the Chinese government in response to the 2019 social unrest, has changed the condition and environment for media workers, including journalists and publishers, for civic and political organisations, such as unions and political parties, as well as for citizens in both online and offline spaces.

Following the principle of “One Country, Two Systems,” Hong Kong has for long enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, which granted its citizens a wide range of civil and political rights and freedoms, including press freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of opinion. Publications critical of the local government or the Communist Party of China were not subject to censorship, and access to the internet, including social media platforms, remained largely unregulated. However, the new provisions under the NSL to safeguard national security have made interventions more common, for instance in the form of content removal requests.

The information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure of the city is widely regarded as very advanced, boasting high internet  penetration rates and high-speed connectivity. Hong Kong is also an important nodal point in the Asia-Pacific region for intercontinental submarine data cables. However, the concern over the NSL may impact further infrastructure projects in this field.

The recent years have seen a coordinated effort by Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to delegitimise any form of criticism or dissent by defending the NSL with the “rule of law” principle, which has been integral to the city’s role as international finance and trading hub. “Rule of law” usually implies the institutional independence of the judiciary and the expectation of the public that everyone in society — citizen, government, authorities — are treated equally before the law. This meaning is often contrasted with the “rule by law” principle, which sees law primarily as a tool for governance to assert control. Framing the NSL as an outcome of a diligent legislation process, foreign governments, NGOs, and news organisations are now instantly accused of smearing the local government or meddling with domestic affairs (which in itself could be a criminal offence under the NSL) when commenting critically on that issue. Meanwhile, local media organisations have folded under increasing pressure from the increased investigative powers of the Hong Kong Police Force. In connection with the social distancing measures introduced for the COVID-19 pandemic, the NSL has been effectively weaponised to stifle dissent, remove the political opposition, and harmonise the media landscape. It is expected that the environment for press freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong will further deteriorate in the foreseeable future, and that methods and tools of digital authoritarianism in the region will steadily align with practices in mainland China.

Read the full report here.

The Unfreedom Monitor

Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism.

Download a PDF of the Hong Kong report.

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