Hong Kong’s new national security law is prompting international media outlets to reconsider their presence in the Chinese territory, signaling the likely end of its status as a regional media base.
For decades, many of the world’s largest media organizations have placed their Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, thanks to its proximity to mainland China, respect for rule of law, and free media environment.
But Hong Kong’s reputation as China’s freest city is quickly fading after the implementation of a far-reaching national security law -- Beijing’s boldest move yet to erase the distinction between the mainland and Hong Kong legal systems.
The legislation is a response to sometimes violent pro-democracy protests over the past year. But the law’s wide-ranging and vague provisions have had a significant chilling effect on free speech.
First decision to move
The New York Times this week announced it will move about a third of its Hong Kong bureau to South Korea, becoming the first major foreign media company to announce such a move.
There is “uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism,” an internal Times memo said of the new law. “We feel it is prudent to make contingency plans and begin to diversify our editing staff around the region.”
The paper said it will keep journalists in Hong Kong to cover the territory but also stressed it is becoming more difficult to do so. Authorities, it said, recently refused to renew a work permit for Chris Buckley, one of its veteran China correspondents.
Earlier this year, China expelled American reporters working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Beijing said the reporters would also not be allowed to report from Hong Kong.
The expulsions were perhaps the most significant escalation in Washington and Beijing’s series of tit-for-tat moves to restrict media access in their countries.
Others mull alternatives
Since the expulsions, The Washington Post has shifted at least two China reporters to South Korea.
The Wall Street Journal and the French news agency AFP are also having preliminary discussions about their future in Hong Kong, according to the U.S.-based cable news network CNN.
This week, the Hong Kong Free Press -- a nonprofit, English language newspaper that reports on the territory’s pro-democracy movement -- acknowledged it may move its operations out of Hong Kong, if needed, because of the security law.
“Nevertheless, even if we are ultimately forced to operate from outside Hong Kong, our newsroom is here to stay,” the group's editor-in-chief and founder Tom Grundy wrote in The Guardian.
Why the law matters
Media is not the primary focus of the national security law, which ostensibly aims to prevent secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.
But Article 54 of the law stipulates authorities must “strengthen the management” of foreign media outlets, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other international groups.
It is not clear what that means; but many foreign journalists privately expect to see tighter monitoring and stricter censorship.
Another difficulty: sources are drying up. Many Hong Kongers now refuse to talk to journalists -- especially those with overseas media outlets.
That may be a response to parts of the new law that criminalize working with a broad range of foreign organizations to provoke hatred toward the government.
The vagueness of that provision has created fear -- not just among journalists, but also civil society organizations.
“People are very nervous,” a veteran human rights worker told VOA. “We don’t know how they will use this law...it is like having a sword above your head.”
Another worker at an international NGO told VOA she and all of her colleagues have already moved out of Hong Kong.
“You just don’t know where the boundaries are. We don’t want to compromise our principles and self-censor, but...there are lots of risks, so we don’t want to expose our staff to these dangers,” she said.
Even before the new law, Hong Kong press freedom had been declining.
With increasing frequency, police have harassed, assaulted, and arrested journalists covering pro-democracy protests.
In late 2015, five employees of a Hong Kong publishing house that sold books critical of the Communist Party were kidnapped by police and subjected to secret interrogations in the mainland.
In 2018, Victor Mallet, then the Asia news editor for the Financial Times (FT), was expelled from Hong Kong after hosting an event with a pro-independence activist.
Those moves set the tone of what was to come, “which was the start of the extension of mainland-style media and political control to Hong Kong,” says Ben Bland, a former China correspondent for the Financial Times, who was based in Hong Kong when Mallet was expelled.
“Many people were in denial. It’s taken the national security law, which makes it explicit that Beijing is calling the shots, for them to realize exactly what’s going on,” says Bland, now a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia.
Although the law has already had a chilling effect, the media in Hong Kong will likely see an extended period of testing, as journalists discover how authorities intend to interpret and enforce the law.
“It’s not that every foreign journalist will be rounded up,” Bland says. “We have to remember that their main weapon is always uncertainty – and the fear and self-censorship that breeds.”
No obvious substitute
However, many analysts predict the foreign media exodus from Hong Kong will be gradual. One reason: there is no clear alternative as a regional media hub.
Taipei may be a logical option for outlets wishing to continue China coverage, due to its nearness to China. But moving reporters to Taiwan risks angering Beijing, which does not recognize Taiwan’s government.
Much like Taipei, Tokyo boasts a vibrant journalism community, functioning democracy, and respect for the rule of law. But its exorbitant cost of living may serve as a deterrent, especially for smaller outlets.
Singapore already hosts the regional headquarters of some Western news outlets, especially those focused on finance and business. But the country’s strict media regulations may be a drawback.
The New York Times said South Korea proved attractive “among other reasons, for its friendliness to foreign business, independent press, and its central role in several major Asian news stories.”
That makes sense, says Jeffrey Robertson, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, who says Seoul will be a focus of global affairs over the next five to 10 years.
But for all its attractiveness, South Korea isn’t China, which is set to dominate global attention for the foreseeable future.
A beacon no more
The exodus of journalists from Hong Kong is especially disappointing, since it has long been a safe harbor for reporters forced to leave China or Southeast Asia, said Sharron Fast, a lecturer in media law at the University of Hong Kong.
“The city represented a beacon in the region for ambitious, robust and even raucous reporting,” Fast said.
Hong Kong, she said, also “provided a valuable window into China, where near total control of the media precluded important investigative journalism exposing issues ranging from human rights violations to the financial holdings of elite [Communist] Party members.”
“If there is any consolation, it is that we are very familiar with the restrictions operating on the mainland,” she said. “We have many talented journalists and international outlets who are well-equipped to adapt.”
Additional reporting provided from Hong Kong.