Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom in Asia, has fallen to 148th place in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index, a drop of nearly 70 places in a single year.
The sharp decline is the result of new national security legislation imposed in 2020 and the revival of colonial-era anti-sedition laws dating back to the 1930s, the press freedom group said.
Since 2020, no fewer than three media outlets have been forced to close by national security investigations or voluntarily close their doors citing legal risks according to the media watchdog, while a dozen journalists and media executives media were also detained under the new legislation.
The former British colony was in 18th place in 2002, the year the index began, but it began to fall in the rankings after the crackdown on democracy protests in 2014 and again in 2019. The Chinese territory ranks now just below the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and slightly above Turkey and India.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that press freedom in Hong Kong was “as vibrant as ever”, citing the large number of regional and international institutions operating in Hong Kong alongside local media.
“That in itself is a very good indication of the dynamism of press freedom in Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters. “But as I have said many times, especially with the enactment of the National Security Law, journalists, the media, are not above the law.”
The broad law punishes activities considered subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession up to life in prison.
Tom Grundy, founder and editor of Hong Kong Free Press, said Lam’s metric was not the best way to measure press freedom.
“The amount of government-registered media is not an indicator of the quality of press freedom in Hong Kong,” he told Al Jazeera. “Most of the outlets in Hong Kong are directly owned by Beijing, Chinese conglomerates or people with business interests in China.”
Grundy said the decline in press freedom in Hong Kong was “undeniable”.
Here is an overview of some key recent events:
June 2020: Beijing imposes national security legislation to fight “separatism” and “foreign interference”.
August 2020: More than 100 officers raid the offices of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily and also arrest owner Jimmy Lai and five senior executives. Lai, who was released on bail more than 40 hours after his arrest, is charged with “colluding with foreign forces”.
In the same month, foreign journalists report that routine visas are now being scrutinized more closely by the immigration department.
September 2020: Hong Kong police arrest 15 executives of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, for fraud.
November 2020: Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) public broadcaster Bao Choy is arrested for making “false statements” in connection with an investigation into a violent protest in 2019.
That same month, radio journalist Wan Yiu-sing, along with his wife and assistant, were arrested under the National Security Law and charged with “inciting and financing secessionist activities”.
December 2020: Lai and two other Apple Daily executives are arrested again for fraud. Lai is denied bail.
April 2021: Chris Tsang, then Hong Kong Police Commissioner, warns of the dangers of foreign agents spreading “fake news” and disinformation campaigns.
March 2021: The Hong Kong Companies Registry limits the information available for research by the public. The ledger was a popular tool for journalists to track hidden wealth and investments in Hong Kong.
February 2021: RTHK is undergoing a management change, leading the public service broadcaster to cancel a number of popular programs and fire staff critical of the government.
June 2021: Hundreds of Hong Kong police officers raid the offices of Apple Daily for the second time and seven journalists and executives are arrested under national security laws. A few days later, the publication announces that it will close its doors in Hong Kong.
October 2021: Amnesty International says it will close its local and regional offices in Hong Kong by the end of the year, citing legal fears.
November 2021: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong is warned that its annual press freedom survey could violate national security laws.
December 2021: Lai is sentenced to 13 months for incitement to attend a vigil commemorating Tiananmen Square. Later that month, Lai and several Apple Daily reporters were charged with “conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications “.
In December, Hong Kong police also raid the offices of Stand News, an independent pro-democracy media. Senior executives are arrested for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”. Stand News says it will close.
The government told the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times they may be guilty of incitement for publishing editorials about low turnout in the city’s first “patriots only” election.
January 2022: Citizen News, another independent outlet, announces its closure, citing legal concerns and fears for the safety of staff.
April 2022: Veteran journalist Allan Au, a columnist for Stand News, is arrested under Hong Kong’s sedition laws.
Also in April, the Hong Kong Journalists Association announces it may disband, citing legal fears, while the Foreign Correspondents’ Club suspends its annual human rights press awards after judges chose Stand News as one of its winners.
May 2022: Arizona State University announces that it will host the Human Rights Press Awards in the future.