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In Hong Kong, ‘No Way Journalists Can Work Freely’

FILE -Police officers stop and check journalists near the Convention and Exhibition Center, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend a ceremony in Hong Kong, July 1, 2022.
FILE -Police officers stop and check journalists near the Convention and Exhibition Center, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend a ceremony in Hong Kong, July 1, 2022.

A prison term handed to a journalist last week shows how Hong Kong is using its laws to “assert more power” over the city’s media, analysts say.

A court sentenced Edmund Wan Yiu-sing to 32 months in prison on charges of sedition and money laundering.

Wan, also known as “Giggs,” hosted online radio shows on local station D100. He has been held in custody since February 2021.

The 54-year-old’s charges relate to 39 episodes of two shows he hosted between February and November 2020, during which the journalist is accused of promoting the idea of Hong Kong independence and resistance against the government and Chinese Communist Party.

The court also convicted the radio host of money laundering, related to crowdfunding campaigns. Local reports say the funds were raised to support pro-democracy protesters.

Iris Hsu, the China representative for media rights group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said Hong Kong is using laws to silence outspoken journalists.

“It is clear by now that authorities will continue to use the law to deter critical reporting and assert more power in the city's news media industry,” Hsu, who is based in Taiwan, told VOA in an email.

Hong Kong introduced its national security law in 2020 as a measure to bring stability after months of anti-government protests. A colonial-era sedition law has also been brought back into use in the past three years.

Media analysts say both laws are being used to silence independent media and opposition voices.

One of the most prominent cases is that of Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, who is in prison on charges including under the national security law.

Hong Kong officials have dismissed criticism of legal cases filed against media.

Authorities have said previously that the national security legislation brought stability and denied that those arrested were targeted for their journalism or activism. Instead, officials say, those arrested had breached laws or endangered national security.

CPJ research on journalist arrests shows how Hong Kong’s national security and sedition laws affected the media scene.

Hong Kong in 2021 appeared for the first time on the CPJ annual census of jailed journalists, with eight detained for their media coverage, Hsu said.

Of those journalists, “seven were charged with collusion under the national security law. And in December 2021, police cited the national security law as the basis for their raid of Stand News,” Hsu said.

The news website Stand News announced it would close in December 2021 after police officers raided its newsrooms as part of a sedition investigation.

Independent news sites Citizen News and Mad Dog Daily soon followed in closing their outlets, citing uncertainty within the city.

‘Political risk’

The laws and media arrests bring uncertainty to the city, journalists say.

“To me, there certainly [is] no way that journalists can work freely in Hong Kong without facing political risk,” said Lam Yin-Pong, who founded the independent outlet reNews, this year.

“If you are worried or concerned, you better quit or even leave the city for good. But if you are determined to go on, you must leave those fears behind,” he told VOA.

The journalist says he has taken measures to avoid being targeted by authorities.

“I sure didn’t touch on issues about Hong Kong independence movement anymore, as that would surely be accused of breaching the National Security Law. Another highly sensitive matter that I would avoid is exiled opposition figures calling for sanctions against China and Hong Kong officials,” he said.

Other journalists quit the industry altogether.

Lee, who asked to be identified only by his first name, used to work for Apple Daily. But when the pro-democracy outlet was forced to close in 2021, he took a job for a pro-Beijing media outlet.

Lee said he soon found himself having to self-censor on politically sensitive topics.

“My supervisor, who was very experienced in news editing except China news, was always in a nervous stage. He cross-checked our articles meticulously every single time,” Lee told VOA.

If the stories focused on the Communist Party, the editor was even more nervous, Lee said, and any reports on China’s government “were scarcely negative.”

Lee said that when he reported on the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands under Japanese control but claimed by China, “the article was turned down.”

That was a turning point. Lee quit his post in July and now works in finance.

“I knew it was time to leave when there was no room for me to write even the simplest facts,” he said.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Hong Kong’s free media experienced an “unprecedented setback” when authorities implemented the national security law.

Hong Kong registered a dramatic decline in RSF’s Press Freedom Index, going from 80 to 148 in the rankings where 1 shows the best conditions for media.

For radio host Wan, the journalist was ordered to hand over $620,000 in assets in addition to his prison sentence.

As part of a plea deal, four sedition and two money laundering charges against Wan remain on file.