Reporters Without Borders releases 10 facts about media repression in Hong Kong

Image by Tom Grundy / HKFP. Used with permission.

International press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued 10 facts about Hong Kong’s repressive media environment last month in response to a Chinese government spokesperson’s claim that the city’s press freedom is “fully protected.” The Chinese statement came after an RSF representative was denied entry into Hong Kong.

To commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3, we're unpacking the 10 facts with added local context.

Journalists imprisoned in Hong Kong

Ten journalists and press freedom defenders are currently jailed in Hong Kong. Sven of them were affiliated with the defunct pro-democracy Apple Daily, including the news outlet’s founder, Jimmy Lai Chi-ying, who is now standing trial under the charge of “colluding with foreign powers to endanger national security” under the Beijing imposed National Security Law enacted on June 30, 2020. The 76-year-old tycoon faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.

Other jailed journalists include former journalists Claudia Mo Man-Ching and Gwyneth Ho Kwai-Lam, who are charged with state subversion for their involvement in the pro-democracy primaries in 2020.

Closure of pro-democracy media outlets

One week after the passage of the city’s domestic national security law, dubbed Article 23, US government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia announced the closure of its Hong Kong office on March 29. 2024.

In 2021, Apple Daily and Stand News, the city's two most influential pro-democracy news outlets, were forced to shut down after their senior staff members were arrested, respectively, for foreign collusion under NSL and sedition under the city’s colonial crime ordinance. The crackdown on independent media led to more than a dozen online media outlets being disbanded.

Repressive laws

According to RSF, at least 28 journalists have been prosecuted after the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL). In addition to charges under the NSL, some were charged with other offences, including sedition, rioting, illegal entry into the Legislative Council, false declaration for data access, and more. 

The newly enacted Article 23 has introduced new offences, including “thief of state secrets” and “espionage,” that undermine journalistic work as the law defines “state secrets” extensively in alignment with the mainland Chinese framework, which covers domains including major policy decisions, economic and social development, science and technology, national defence and diplomacy, etc. 

In a similar manner, the definition of “espionage-related acts” covers participation and support ranging from being a member to providing financial support or information, recruiting members for the organization, and receiving substantial advantages offered by the organization. Such a definition may deter independent journalists working for foreign media outlets.

The scope of sedition is also extended to cover the incitement of hatred or enmity between residents of the HKSAR or residents of different parts of China, and the maximum penalty is increased from two years under criminal law to 10 years under the new Article 23. 

Threatening words to media outlets

Hong Kong authorities have sent at least seven letters condemning foreign media outlets, including The BBC, The Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Bloomberg, for publishing “misleading,”  “scaremongering,” and “false” reports and commentaries about Article 23. According to Bloomberg, the city's government has sent over 500 letters to 174 foreign news outlets from 30 countries, blasting their negative coverage of Hong Kong to safeguard its reputation since 2020.

Local media outlets have been pressed to censor critical voices. The most well-known example is the removal of Zunzi’s column in Mingpao last May after Hong Kong government officials repeatedly accused him of “inciting public discontent against the government.”

Public broadcaster RTHK lost its independence

After the Hong Kong government reshuffled the leadership of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in May 2021 by appointing Patrick Li, a civil servant with no journalistic experience, to head the broadcaster, the broadcaster has cancelled programs, scrubbed its online archives, purged its Twitter account, issued directives to use Beijing-approved wording and partnered with China Media Group to air more programs produced by China's state-owned media outlets to “nurture a stronger sense of patriotism” among viewers.

Suppression of independent journalist groups

The Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC) and Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) have been under huge political pressure as China's state-funded media outlets have repeatedly criticized the independent journalist groups for foreign collusion and inciting Hong Kong's independence.

Eventually, the FCC was forced to cancel its annual Human Rights Press Award to prevent legal risks in April 2022. As for HKJA, the Hong Kong Inland Revenue Department demanded the professional union to pay a HKD 400,000 (approximately US$ 51,000 dollars) profit tax dating back to 2017–2018.

More recently, HKJA’s fundraising event was forced to move online as the venue withdrew its hosting agreement due to “irresistible force,” a new term referring to political pressure.

Harassment of journalists

Many Hong Kong-based journalists have experienced being tailed and surveilled by unidentified individuals. Since the enactment of the NSL in 2020, hundreds of professional and citizen journalists have been forced to leave the city, and only about one-third of the professional journalists can continue their careers overseas. RSF estimated that at least 900 journalists lost their jobs due to the closure of independent media outlets.

Speech crime and literary inquisition

National security crimes under the NSL and Article 23, such as state subversion, collusion and sedition, are speech-related crimes. Hence, news articles and commentaries are often used as evidence in court. For example, in the Stand News trial, the police authorities listed 587 articles in their case file. Eventually, 17 pieces were presented by the prosecutor in court as evidence for the sedition charge against Stand News’s two former editors-in-chief.

As of July 2023, there were 155 national security-related charges. Most of the charges were based on speech-related evidence, such as commentaries, slogans, public speeches, social media posts, etc.

Journalists prevented from entering the city

A number of foreign journalists working for the New York Times, the Economist, and the Hong Kong Free Press were denied work visas in Hong Kong after the passage of the NSL in 2020. Last year, at least three freelance journalists, including Michiko Kiseki and Yoshiaki Ogawa, and US reporter Matthew Connors were denied entry into Hong Kong.

Press freedom ranking

Hong Kong ranks 140th out of 180 in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, plummeting from 18th place in 2002.  

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