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A Hong Kong reporter's account of the crackdown on press freedom under the national security law

Leung Ka Lai. Image from the Stand News. Used with permission.

This is the final installment of a story, originally published in Chinese, on The Stand News. It was translated into English by Global Voices and will be published here in five parts with permission. Read parts one, two, three, and four.

Freedom of speech is under siege in the city of Hong Kong following the enactment of the national security law.

Many foreign journalists have reportedly failed to renew their work visas, pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was raided and its founder Jimmy Lai arrested, accused of collusion with foreign forces.

The latest drama concerned the arrest of Choy Yuk-ling, a reporter who had worked for the city's public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong. On November 2, police arrested Choy as part of an investigation into the Yuen Long mob attack incident. The incident occurred on July 21, 2019, when a pro-Beijing mob attacked protesters returning home inside the Yuen Long subway station. The police claimed that the reporter violated the Road and Traffic Ordinance for making a false statement during her research on the details of a vehicle involved in the attack.

All the signs thus far suggest that working in the field of journalism has become a dangerous endeavor.

Beijing announced its plan to enact the draconian national security law in Hong Kong in May 2019. As the term “national security” is so vaguely defined, critical speech could be interpreted as provoking hatred toward the authorities. This has led to a silencing effect that swept across the city.

A number of prominent columnists including financial experts Simon Lee and Michael Suen on Apple Daily news terminated their columns in the newspapers, several influential Facebook public pages were deleted by their administrators — including one ran by former Secretary of the Civil Service Joseph Wong — a number of websites vanished, and many social media users deleted their user accounts.

The risk of speaking out under one's real name is getting higher and higher.

Leung Ka Lai, a journalist working for Apple Daily, interviewed protesters and written feature stories about the anti-China extradition protests.

On August 10, the date when Jimmy Lai was arrested and Apple Daily’s office was raided by about 200 police officers, she was shocked. Yet, she somehow anticipated this as she had removed all the interviewees’ details and notes from the office and deleted all the chat records from her mobile phone in July.

She also deleted a public page on Facebook which was opened on August 31, 2019, after a major city-wide anti-China extradition protest. She used the page to share videos that she took and some of her journalistic notes. One of her videos showing riot police officers beating up young protesters inside a church in Sai Wan Ho on November 11, 2019, had attracted 2 million views. Through the page, she also received a large number of tips. At the same time, she was doxxed and harassed online.

Her major concern is to prevent the leaking of information regarding her source:

I don’t worry about myself. The safety of my interviewees is more important than mine and I don’t want to risk the exposure of their details.

She lived with the fear that she would eventually be arrested for being a journalist. This year, when she was reporting on the anniversary of the protests on June 12, she was trapped in a police kettling. Riot police pulled her backpack and grabbed her phone while she was live-streaming. She was searched and detained for 45 minutes.

Apple Daily used to have reporters’ byline in each of its reports. Such practice has been suspended since July 1 as the NSL was enacted. The most worrisome fact about the national security law, as pointed out by the paper's legal consultant is that the interpretation of the law is at the hands of Beijing.

Leung has been a journalist for about 15 years. She believes that the aim of the police raid was to instigate fear.

On August 27, about two weeks after the raid Chinese state-funded media, the People’s Daily, stated that Apple Daily is a dangerous “political organization.” Such political labels could lead to the shutdown of the media outlet under the draconian law.

The crackdown on Apple Daily has extended to its supporters. During the raid, netizens expressed their support to the paper by buying stocks of its parent company Next Media Group, which led to a rocket surge of its stock price. Two weeks later, on September 10, police arrested 15 stock buyers under the charge of “conspiracy to defraud” and “money laundry.” In the past, abnormal activities in the stock market would be investigated by the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong and the Securities and Futures Commission.

Leung is worried that Beijing would outlaw media outlets that are not loyal to them:

The space for free press is diminishing… I fear that very soon we will be forced to leave the industry, or they will shut down Apple Daily. If you want to remain a journalist, you have to work for pro-establishment media outlets such as Wen Wei Po or Ta Kung Pao.

The situation is extremely scary. But I will continue to stay in the industry until there is no more space. I am prepared to work as a freelance journalist. What we are facing now is not just the survival of Apple Daily but the whole independent media sector.

She wants to continue her journalism career and safeguard the truth:

We have to prevent the scenario that after 30 years, people would say that June 4 had never taken place. We have to carry on with our work until there is no more space.

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