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Hong Kong Now a City of Red Lines for Media, Analysts Say

FILE - Members of the media work at the West Kowloon Magistrates' courts in Hong Kong, China, Nov. 25, 2022.

With media outlets shuttered, eight journalists in jail, and the threat of a restrictive national security law looming large, reporters in Hong Kong need "to be careful and to be smart," media experts say.

After a year in which the city's media freedom position declined on global watchdog rankings, Hong Kong's media community go into the new year wary that 2023 could bring more legal restraints.

In his address to the Legislative Council in October, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee vowed to enact new national security laws to combat "false information."

Hong Kong's media woes started on the cusp of the New Year with the closing of pro-democracy news outlet Stand News in late December 2021 following a sedition investigation by national security authorities.

FILE - Former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen leaves the court after release on bail over his charge of conspiring to publish Seditious Publications in Hong Kong, Dec. 13, 2022.
FILE - Former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen leaves the court after release on bail over his charge of conspiring to publish Seditious Publications in Hong Kong, Dec. 13, 2022.

An additional six media outlets followed suit in 2022, some citing concerns under the national security law.

Since the law was passed in 2020, at least 12 news outlets have shuttered, including the well-known pro-democracy outlet Apple Daily, according to the International Federation of Journalists.

Keith Richburg, director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre and president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club Hong Kong, said time will tell whether more media outlets will be affected.

"It's a bit of a mixed bag, because on the one hand, the government has always kind of said, 'Look, this doesn't apply to everybody. It only applies to those who are violating national security,'" he told VOA in a phone call.

"They've always said this is not a wholesale assault on the media, only these specific things they are going after. For the moment, they've kind of stopped. The police haven't been going after others. You could say the other shoe is yet to drop."

Hong Kong was once a model for press freedom in the Asia region, with local and international reporters covering political events freely.

But many say they now tread more carefully.

The broad provisions in the national security law prohibit acts deemed as secession, subversion, foreign collusion, and terrorism. Colonial-era sedition laws have also been used against opposition voices.

Perhaps the most high-profile case is that of media tycoon and founder of Apple Daily Jimmy Lai. The 75-year-old businessman has been in custody since December 2020 on a string of charges.

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Already convicted on charges of unlawful assembly and fraud, Lai is awaiting trial for "foreign collusion" under the security law, which could bring a life sentence.

That trial was due to begin this month, but a court has postponed the hearing until September 2023 amid debate about whether Beijing will allow an international lawyer as Lai's counsel.

Western critics and human rights groups have blasted Lai's treatment and the closure of independent media outlets, saying the law has nullified freedom of speech and has stifled opposition voices.

Eric Wishart, a media lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University, said Lai's trial is a test for the city's government.

"That's going to be a big trial, as well. And he's a media baron, and he's a symbol of an opposition media in Hong Kong," Wishart told VOA.

Iris Hsu, the China correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ) agrees.

"The development of Jimmy Lai's national security trial is the one to watch, as it will be indicative of Hong Kong's press environment," she told VOA.

FILE - Armed police stand guard as they escort a prison van that is believed to carry media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, to the High Court in Hong Kong, China, Dec. 1, 2022.
FILE - Armed police stand guard as they escort a prison van that is believed to carry media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, to the High Court in Hong Kong, China, Dec. 1, 2022.

Media that remain in Hong Kong must navigate new red lines that in some cases are creating self-censorship.

Richburg said journalists in Hong Kong will likely need to alter how they work.

"Just try to be careful and be smart. We know where the sensitive areas are. While the red lines are vague, they are still pretty specific. If you're into any kind of sensitive topic, just be careful what you're doing. Try to be a bit smarter, but don't hold back too much," he said.

"People have to change. Journalists have to change," he said. "People need to get it out of their heads, 'This is Hong Kong the way it used to be,' and start getting it into their heads, 'This is China.' Just treat it like you would any authoritarian place, where it's dangerous to get people to go on the record."

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong National Security Bureau dismissed the concerns, saying the allegations "are no further from the truth."

"The media landscape in Hong Kong is as vibrant as ever," the statement said, noting that more than 200 media outlets are registered in the city.

"As always, the media can exercise their right to monitor the HKSAR Government's work, and their freedom of commenting on or even criticizing government policies remains uninhibited as long as this is not in violation of the law," the spokesperson said.

The email said authorities are "committed to protecting and respecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press," which are enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. But, the email stated, in exercising those rights, the "press must comply with the restriction of the law for reasons including protection of national security."

Media watchdogs disagree.

Reporters Without Borders registered a dramatic 68-place decline for Hong Kong in its annual Press Freedom Index for 2022. Hong Kong now ranks 148 out of 180 countries or territories, where 1 has the best media conditions.

And eight of the 40 journalists jailed in China are imprisoned in Hong Kong — all held on anti-state charges — according to CPJ's annual census of imprisoned journalists.

The security spokesperson said that any law enforcement actions are "based on evidence, strictly according to the law" and not related to an individual's "political stance, background, or occupation."

Another concern of media analysts is that Hong Kong could pass a "fake news" law that has been publicly discussed by government officials.

Richburg said nothing has been confirmed, but he believes legislation will eventually come into place.

"[The authorities] talked about it so much, but so far, nothing has been proposed," he said. "They've even said it themselves, that it's very complicated, and they're going to study what other countries have done."

Eight in 10 journalists oppose such a law, according to a study from Hong Kong Baptist University cited in the South China Morning Post.

Journalists who have spoken to VOA say such laws give authorities more power over the media and called the proposal "dangerous."

"Fake news laws have historically been used by governments to shutter and silence critical voices and coverage," Wishart said. "A fake news law would be another weapon against independent critical voices."