The end of media freedom in Hong Kong?

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The last few years have seen a crackdown on human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. Among others, in 2019, protests across Hong Kong turned violent with “law enforcement officials using certain riot control measures prohibited by international norms and standards” and “firing tear gas canisters in overcrowded areas and closed and directly at individual protesters on several occasions, creating a considerable risk of death or serious injury. The 2019 protests in Hong Kong were sparked by the then proposed bill to allow China to extradite individuals from Hong Kong and try them in mainland China – yet another attack on human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. Despite strong opposition, the bill became law and was then used to target many of those who opposed it. Over the following months, several of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists were convicted of illegal assembly following the 2019 protests.

Among those convicted of staging an unauthorized protest was Jimmy Lai. Jimmy Lai, owner of the independent newspaper Apple Daily and a pro-democracy activist has been arrested several times and ultimately charged with conspiracy and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security under the controversial National Security Act. His diary, Apple Daily, finally closed in June 2021, after the assets of Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited were frozen, the headquarters was raided by police and several people were arrested. This was only the start of the attacks on media freedom in Hong Kong.

At the end of December 2021, the world was shocked by another attack on media freedom in Hong Kong, with the shutdown of StandNews, one of the last pro-democracy media outlets in Hong Kong. Hong Kong police arrested several StandNews journalists and Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Denise Ho and Margaret Ng on charges of “conspiring to publish seditious material”. Two editors were then charged with conspiracy to publish seditious material.

In January 2022, another independent outlet, Zhongxin News (Citizen News), announced that it would close its doors on January 4, 2022, after five years of providing information to its readers. Their announcement added that: “In the center of a smoldering storm, we found ourselves in a critical situation. In the face of a crisis, we must ensure the safety and well-being of all who are on board. ”

Within months, three pro-democracy outlets disappeared from Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong officials reject the crackdown and deny targeting the media. At a press conference, Hong Kong Managing Director Carrie Lam commented on the action against Stand News, saying, “These actions are law enforcement actions. These actions have nothing to do with the alleged suppression of press freedom or the suppression of democracy. (…) Journalism is not sedition. But seditious acts and activities and the incitement of others through public acts and activities should not be tolerated under the guise of reporting. It should be very clear what news reporting is and what a seditious act or activity aimed at undermining national security is. “

Even before the recent attacks, media freedom was under several pressures in Hong Kong. In 2021, and before the shutdown of pro-democracy media, Hong Kong was ranked 80th for media freedom in the world. The 2021 World Press Freedom Index has identified national security laws as a significant threat. We can see it clearly now. More than 100 pro-democracy supporters, including several journalists, have been arrested under the law so far. Many others have fled into exile.

Media freedom is the foundation of democracy and any attack on media freedom damages this foundation, causing the pillars to collapse. As China continues to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, Hong Kong needs media freedom more than ever.

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