On June 30, 2020, the day the National Security Law in Hong Kong was enacted, the local government gave reassurances that “it will not affect legitimate rights and freedoms of individuals.” Two years later, however, drastic changes in the local media landscape tell a different story.
Not long ago, dissenting voices were part of Hong Kong’s public discourse. The framework of “One Country, Two Systems,” which promised the city a high degree of autonomy after 1997, was also seen as a recognition that Hong Kong’s previous success as a global financial centre was rooted in the far-reaching freedoms of individuals and businesses. Political screening was largely non-existent. Book shops, many widely frequented by visitors from the Chinese mainland, could legally sell controversial titles, while artists and filmmakers could get support and exposure without the need to compromise their political messages.
However, following the social unrest in 2019, China’s central government inserted the national security law (NSL), passed by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress into Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the so-called Basic Law, putting an end to a nearly two-decades-long hands-off approach to the controversial issue of national security. Circumventing the local legislature, the new National Security Law was introduced within days, with many details unknown until the legislation was passed. While the law was not meant to be applied retroactively, initial concerns were raised over its vagueness and broadness — especially how those undefined “red lines” would affect the work of journalists. But authorities largely dismissed such concerns by emphasising that the law would only affect “a small group of people,” yet the tally of disappeared media organisations suggests otherwise.
“Self-inflicted” closure of critical media
The first major casualty was the popular tabloid Apple Daily which published a daily print newspaper and operated an elaborate online news site with additional content for paid subscribers. While Apple Daily was well known for its sensationalist journalism, it was also closely aligned with the so-called pan-democratic camp, a political alliance of pro-democracy parties and activists. On June 17, 2021, the Hong Kong Police Force raided the headquarters of the newspaper and arrested five affiliates. Meanwhile, most of Apple Daily’s financial assets and bank accounts were frozen, forcing the newspaper to shut down only a few days later. The last issue, which was printed one million times (compared to the usual 80,000 daily copies) was sold out within hours of publication, with many citizens lining up late at night to get a copy. Founder Jimmy Lai has since been charged under the National Security Law, with the trial scheduled to start in the near future.
After the closure of Apple Daily, Stand News, a popular online news media outlet, was widely regarded as the most important pro-democracy outlet in the city. It was founded in 2014, succeeding the previously popular platform House News. On June 27, 2021, Stand News announced that it would remove previously published articles from its platforms and also stop paid subscriptions in the hope of avoiding a similar fate as Apple Daily. Six months later, their office was raided by the Hong Kong Police Force, with two senior editors later being charged with publishing seditious materials. Editor Ronson Chan, who is the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, has also been investigated. Shortly after the raid, the media outlet announced the voluntary closure to protect its staff.
Meanwhile, Stand News ex-Chief editor Chung Pui Kuen has completed his testimony in court over 17 allegedly “seditious” articles, which are commentaries, reports and images that are critical of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, such as interviews with activists running for the pro-democracy primaries and criticisms that a mere slogan like “end one-party dictatorship” could fall into the remit of “inciting subversion” under the NSL. The closing argument of the trial will take place in June, and the case will be a landmark regarding how freedom of speech has changed in Hong Kong under the national security regime.
The disappearance of another major online medium was seen as a warning for the industry at large. In the following days, several other platforms ceased their operations, citing the increasing pressure and risk associated with their work. Among them were Citizen News, Mad Dog Daily, CLS, Internet Broadcasting Hong Kong, Dare Media HK, Polymer, and White Knight.
When asked if Hong Kong’s press freedom is deteriorating, then-city leader Carrie Lam insisted that these events are not related to the National Security Law. Similarly, pro-establishment media have labelled the closures as merely “self-inflicted.”
In June 2022, Hong Kong-based news agency Factwire disbanded as well, citing concerns over how a potential fake news law could be weaponized against investigative journalism. Factwire was established in 2015 via a crowdfunding campaign with the support of more than 3,000 backers. Since then, it broke several major stories, including the exposure of quality issues of mass-transit trains and defects of a nearby nuclear power plant in Guangdong Province. The agency also won the 2020 Human Rights Press Award.
But also international media has been impacted. Soon after the enactment of the National Security Law, the New York Times decided to relocate their digital news operations to Seoul. There have also been instances in which foreign journalists were denied working visas, including Sue-lin Wong of The Economist. Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia also announced the suspension of Cantonese-language programs which could put Hong Kong-based contributors at risk. Soon after the demise of Apple Daily, subscription-based news site Initium Media moved its operations from Hong Kong to Singapore.
Apart from all the independent and private outlets, Hong Kong’s public broadcasting company, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which was originally modelled after the BBC and understood itself as an impartial yet critical media outlet, has also been reined in. Following the backlash to a parody show, which mocked policemen during the social unrest in 2019, the organisation made significant personnel changes. Some reporters were seemingly reprimanded for their confrontational attitude or let go altogether. Programs focusing on open debates were either removed or rebranded, and RTHK was, in its entirety, repositioned as a government mouthpiece. In order to further dissociate itself from its critical past, the broadcaster also started deleting content from its archive and social media channels.
There are several media outlets remaining which defend their critical stance towards the government; however, their diversity and reach have been significantly reduced, while most also adopted certain editorial guidelines to minimise risks. One strategy seemed to be to add disclaimers to critical commentaries, though pro-government media have already started to question this practice.
In a matter of just 20 years, Hong Kong has dropped from 18th to 148th in the World Press Freedom Ranking. On a local level, this number can be translated into less critical coverage, less investigative reporting, and a less appealing work environment for talented journalists.
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