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‘These Rights Are Not Absolute’

Beijing’s Next Target of Suppression in Hong Kong: Journalists

Hong Kong police, in full riot gear, prepare to pepper-spray journalists covering pro-democracy protests in July 2019.

By Patrick McShane 

In these occasional reports, Digital Privacy News examines the fallout of China’s national security law on Hong Kong.

Previously home to hundreds of freewheeling local newspapers and magazines, Hong Kong was once the preferred regional base for virtually every one of the world’s top international news agencies and newspapers.

The city long was celebrated as a beacon of press freedom across the Asia-Pacific region.

And, even after the British returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, freedom of the press seemed to be safely enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.

Today, however, the health of journalism in Hong Kong and the well-being of genuine news gatherers has come under serious doubt.

80th Place in Press Freedom Index

In 2002, Hong Kong placed 18th in the International Press Freedom Index, by the independent advocacy group Reporters Without Borders in Paris.

Today, the city has plunged to the 80th position — just ahead of the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, a notorious police state.

China sits at the 177th place out of 180 nations examined.

Last June, the Hong Kong Journalists Association surveyed its nearly 400 members, discovering that 87% believed the city’s press freedom was being “severely affected” by the government moves.

“For the time being, people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

In addition, 90% responded that journalists’ safety was being threatened.

Further, 93% said they feared the government would punish news outlets for covering “sensitive” subjects.

National Security Law’s Role

The greatest fear among journalists in Hong Kong — local reporters and editors, as well as long-time foreign correspondents — is China’s national security law that was imposed last June.

Financed with a $1 billion budget, the law is being used to halt any reporting that could be viewed as critical of the Hong Kong government or Beijing’s central government.

Many of the law’s vague amendments are being aimed directly at journalists.

For example, Article 10 declares, referring to the territory’s official name: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall promote national security education through … the media, the internet and other means.”

Free Speech Has Limits

In her government blog last month Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing justice minister, Teresa Cheng, said in response to a question on the issue that “both the Basic Law and Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights guarantee freedom of expression.

“At the same time … these rights are not absolute and are subject to restrictions for the protection of public order.”

Cheng’s boss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, repeatedly has said that free speech in Hong Kong had limits.

And last May, Lam appeared to warn that such limits might be tightened even further: “For the time being, people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say.”

The problem, several experienced journalists told Digital Privacy News, was that those limits no longer were decided by courts, but by Hong Kong police — which remains under intense pressure from Beijing.

A local Hong Kong journalist wears a T-shirt saying, “If you don’t stand up for Hong Kong today, you may not have the right to do so tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, the most alarming article of the national security law is No. 54.

It states that “the Office for Safeguarding National Security … in Hong Kong … take necessary measures to strengthen the management of … news agencies of foreign countries and from outside the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macao of the People’s Republic of China in the region.”

This means, journalists told Digital Privacy News, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not only is attempting to control news reporting by locally born Hongkongers, but is aiming to manage and restrain what is reported by international news organizations.

Hong Kong’s government already has created new decrees to hinder the work of foreign journalists, including tighter visa restrictions in the future that would require foreign reporters to register and making public government databases off limits to journalists.

All this, added to the possibility of arrest, has led some news organizations to consider moving their bureaus. The New York Times cited the security law in announcing last year that it was moving its regional office from Hong Kong to Seoul.

Attacks on Many Fronts

At the behest of Beijing, and equipped with the new law, the Hong Kong government simultaneously is attacking news organizations and individual journalists.

In what surprised many observers, the government’s first target has been its own Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).

Founded in 1928, and patterned after the London-based BBC, the Hong Kong government long has funded RTHK.

Despite this, the broadcaster always has been respected for its independence and had full freedom in reporting and editing.

In recent years, the 93-year-old news agency has won many international awards, including from the United States, for its hard-hitting reports, including those spotlighting failed government policies and blunders.

One recent RTHK highlight was its yearlong coverage of the government’s handling of the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

An episode of its popular TV news show, “Hong Kong Connection,” airing last July brought the agency a Human Rights Press Award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the Hong Kong Journalists Association and Amnesty International Hong Kong.

The segment examined alleged police misconduct on July 21, 2019, when more than 100 men with suspected triad links stormed the Yuen Long public transit station and attacked journalists, pro-democracy protesters and commuters.

Former Radio Television Hong Kong producer Bao Choy Yuk-ling was convicted and fined for actions relating to a report on the 2019 attack on pro-democracy demonstrators.

The men wielded steel pipes and bamboo canes — and Hong Kong police failed to appear for 39 minutes, despite many emergency calls. The delayed action by the police led many Hongkongers to accuse authorities of colluding with the pro-Beijing mob.

Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker in whose district the attacks occurred, told the South China Morning Post: “Police didn’t show up, while thugs rampaged through the station and attacked Yuen Long residents indiscriminately.”

He cited the police response as evidence of “clear collusion between police and the gangs.”  

Eighteen months later, on Jan. 6, Chu was among 55 pro-democracy supporters who were arrested under the national security law — specifically its provision regarding alleged subversion. He is free on bail awaiting trial.

Broadcaster Under Fire

Since first reporting on the police response to the July 2019 protests, the Hong Kong government has increased its attacks on RTHK — and they have increased with a blow-torch intensity.

Strangely, as a wholly funded government office, RTHK easily could be shuttered. Instead, the government appears to be extinguishing the popular public broadcaster slowly — and publicly — replacing it with a pro-Beijing facsimile.

In March, veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing was forced out, to be replaced by Patrick Li, a career government official with no journalistic experience, to lead RTHK.

Leung’s removal led to five other senior journalists resigning, including Doris Wong, in charge of the broadcaster’s public and current affairs operation, and Lui Wai-ling, producer of a popular show that mocked current events in the city.

Within a few weeks of his arrival, RTHK’s new boss axed 10 Chinese and English-language shows critical of the government.

Li also dropped a planned interview with a pro-democracy politician, switching it to a pro-government figure, and cancelled a scheduled interview with Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Patrick Li, a longtime Hong Kong official with no journalism experience, after being named as head of Radio Television Hong Kong in March.

RTHK then disclosed that it was withdrawing all entries in two global media contests, saying they needed to be reviewed.

The agency also announced that it was deleting all programs from its YouTube channel and Facebook page older than 12 months, as well as deleting its archive.

The Facebook page is believed to contain more than 17,200 videos, include dozens critical of the government that have earned over a million views each, including the controversial programs covering the 2019 protests.

Concerned Hongkongers, alarmed and angered at the permanent loss of the city’s recent political history, are racing to copy programs before RTHK erases its legacy.

In addition, the Hong Kong government has attacked individual employees of the news agency, in each case young women.

Fate of Two Journalists

RTHK reporter Nabela Qoser recently lost her contract, reportedly for asking Chief Executive Lam questions deemed too critical during a news conference after the 2019 attack.

At the session, the morning after the July 21 assault, Qoser pressed Lam about the delayed police response: “Was yesterday an orchestrated collaboration performed by the police and government? … Did you learn about it only this morning? … Were you able to sleep well last night?”

Lam refused to answer Qoser’s questions directly, later only saying: “I have answered your question. … Thank you. That will be all.”

Months before Qoser was let go, however, the CCP’s three newspapers — the Chinese-language Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao, and the English-language China Daily — demanded she be fired, all insisting that it was the will of the Hong Kong people.

Radio Television Hong Kong reporter Nabela Qoser lost her contract with the state-financed broadcaster, reportedly for asking officials questions that were deemed too critical.

The RTHK’s staff union called the dismissal “unjustified suppression.”

Born in Hong Kong to Pakistani parents, Qoser was the city’s first Cantonese-language news reporter of non-ethnic Chinese descent.

A second RTHK journalist, Bao Choy Yuk-ling, was charged, convicted and fined $800 last month for improperly using a government database while working on the documentary on the 2019 attack.

‘Know Its Place’

The day after Choy’s conviction, Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) attacked the verdict, saying it set a “dangerous precedent” for “legal action against journalists for engaging in routine reporting.”

The following day, the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong responded that the FCC’s statement had “openly vilified the (Hong Kong) government and trampled upon the rule of law on the pretext of press freedom.”

The group, it added, should “know its place.”

Two weeks ago, Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang, long a Beijing supporter, announced a proposal for new law, under which writers of so-called “fake news” would risk arrest. 

“These rights are not absolute and are subject to restrictions for the protection of public order.”

Hong Kong Justice Minister Teresa Cheng.

“Fake news,” said the police chief, “is directly linked to national security.

“Many foreign forces are using their proxies in Hong Kong to spread misinformation, hatred and division,” Tang said. “We will investigate and arrest if there is evidence.”

Toy Guns in Children’s Hands

Tang’s wrath reportedly was triggered by a report and photos in Apple Daily, the pro-democracy tabloid.

He criticized Apple Daily for publishing photos of school pupils’ visits to the Police Tactical Training College on National Security Education Day last month.

The images showed the children playing with toy guns, pointing them at one another, acting either as officers or as startled protesters.

Tang referred to the children’s photos as the clearest example of “fake news,” claiming the tabloid used such reports “to divide society and incite hatred.”

A Hong Kong schoolgirl aims a toy gun at a classmate. The gun was obtained at a National Security Education Day event sponsored by Hong Kong police.

Later, however, Tang conceded that the photos published in Apple Daily were real, not fake, as were similar images published by other outlets.

Some of the photos were taken by staff news photographers.

Others, however, were believed to have been issued from the Hong Kong police’s press office.

Patrick McShane is a longtime resident of Asia.