Reporting amidst fear: Hong Kong’s National Security Law puts press and journalists on the line
Women journalists share apprehensions of reporting under the controversial law with radical changes on display
Hong Kong’s new national security law came into effect on June 30. Roughly one month later, citizens of this Special Administrative Region controlled by The People’s Republic of China witnessed unprecedented oppression of the press. Jimmy Lai, a 72-year-old media tycoon, was handcuffed and arrested from his home by Hong Kong police on August 10, for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces”. Headquarters of Apple Daily, a flagship newspaper operating under his media company Next Digital, were raided by 200 officers following the arrest.
Hong Kong police tweeted that seven other people were taken into custody on “suspicion of breaches of the #NationalSecurityLaw”. The tweet further stated that the “offences include collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, Article 29 of the #NSL” and that an investigation was underway. Among the seven taken into custody were Lai’s two sons and some top members of Next Digital.
Journalists and advocates of press freedom were left shaken after the major media organization and its owner became a target of the controversial made-in-China law, comprised of 66 articles that criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces. Anyone found guilty of violating the law could face imprisonment, up to a life-sentence. The People’s Republic of China bypassed the local legislature and breached the principle of non-interference in Hong Kong’s governance.
The law has pushed its press freedom into an existential threat. It clearly shows that Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily were persecuted for their pro-democracy stance and critical take of the government. While China considers their intercession as bringing stability to Hong Kong, critics fear that this is the end of press freedom in the city-state, as the law curtails freedom of speech and protest.
Mary Hui, a Quartz reporter based in Hong Kong, deemed the ongoing situation a “distressing and disturbing time for the press in Hong Kong”.
“While the Hong Kong government continues to repeat its assurances that the city will keep the freedom of the press, what we have seen in the weeks following the national security law’s implementation suggests anything but. Notably, Carrie Lam has couched the discussion of media freedoms in quid pro quo terms. Lam, in a press conference last month, stated that she will uphold press freedoms only if journalists can commit to not violating the national security law. The problem lies therein: the law is written so vaguely that no one, including journalists, has a clear idea of what amounts to an offence,” she said when sharing her views about the current display of media suppression in Hong Kong.
Mary articulated the feelings of shock, outrage, and revulsion within the media after the arrest and raid took place earlier in August.
“The brazen arrest and raid is a direct assault on the press, and shows us what the Hong Kong and Beijing government are willing to do to eliminate voices of opposition,” she said.
The use of vague terminology in the law leaves little room for journalists to feel safe from being targeted. However, will that change anything for those working in the field? One can never predict, but the current situation reflects that radical changes are already underway.
Siaw Hew Wah, a senior editor at a Hong Kong-based magazine, shared that limitations already existed, regardless of what the law entails.
“My duty is to do in-depth feature writings, which are often related to social or political issues, such as social movement, government policies, etc. Before the enactment of the national security law on Hong Kong, I have already been facing quite a lot of limitations, as we call it the ‘hidden red line’,” which means there are some topics we are not suggested to touch on,” she said.
Siaw further explained that the “hidden red line” was mostly related to issues rooted in China — particularly human rights violations. However, the limitations have now narrowed down the topics that one can or cannot work on.
“I am suggested not to do ‘sensitive topics’ by my company, as all the journalists in Hong Kong are facing danger of going to jail if we have touched the ‘red line’. I inevitably feel threatened. As a journalist my duty is to disclose the truth, provide good values to the readers. I avoid self-censorship but I am scared that I may touch on the ‘hidden red line’,” she said.
A*, an Apple Daily reporter who requested to remain anonymous, echoed Siaw’s sentiments about keeping away from ‘sensitive topics’.
“Since 2019, things have worsened. Not only do we have to worry about our own safety, but also be more cautious about our interviewees’ safety. For instance, when interviewing participants of the anti-extradition law movement, I was more worried than the interviewees themselves… and since the national security law has been implemented, the fear is getting much bigger than ever before. I remind myself not to fear because that is how tyranny works, it is hard not to fear at all,” she said.
A* added that when she writes about ‘politically sensitive topics and interviewees’, she avoids using her byline, in fear of negative repercussions on both herself and her family.
Sharing her views on Lai’s arrest and the events that ensued, A* admitted that she was scared for herself and her colleagues working at the publication, all of whom now fear similar persecution. However, she is hopeful to continue working in the face of oppression.
“This incident strengthens my determination to keep going as a reporter in Hong Kong. Fear of being arrested has intensified, but at the same time, we do not want to be defeated when facing such unreasonable tyranny. Only truth can uphold justice. I feel like reporters should bear some kind of social responsibility to uncover injustice and show the truth to the public. I still think there is space and freedom for reporters, though freedom of press has been deteriorating quickly,” she stated.
Shirley Leung, a senior reporter at Apple Daily, shared her nervousness about the law and deemed it “white terror”.
“Since the red line drawn by the national security law is now very blurred, we simply do not know what topics or words would violate this law. Somehow, we might have to self-censor while reporting and writing. This is absolutely white terror. In my opinion, press freedom is diminishing and will soon cease to exist,” she said.
After what happened with Lai and Apple Daily, Shirley added that it has intensified fear within the industry, particularly those working for the publication.
“I myself work in Apple Daily’s General News section and found this incident very impactful. The fear has definitely intensified, and it is only a matter of time before the government tries to stop the publication from running, by using the national security law. As for the media industry, I think everybody is looking at the reaction of Apple Daily and its future development as a benchmark on the red line. I think it is the white terror atmosphere that the government wants to create, and in effect, the media industry would be more ‘obedient’ after the incident.” Shirely opined.
Despite the fear of being misconstrued, Laurel Chor — a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist — shared a slightly different perspective on how the law will impact the way she would work.
“As journalists, we are just doing our job the same way we always have. But for the first time, I do fear what if the government targets me. I’m a freelancer and work for a lot of western media companies. I go on TV and radio, give interviews and now I wonder if they can be misconstrued. It is worrying, but at the same time I don’t think any of us are going to change the way we work,” she shared.
Laurel added that journalists will now have to be more careful about protecting their sources, as well as being aware of legal implications and the legal resources available to them.
“We (journalists) are all more cautious, aware and more practiced about protecting ourselves and our sources. It is certainly harder to talk to people now because you worry about your sources or subjects and don’t want to put them in harm’s way under this new law,” she said.
Laurel concurred the state of press freedom was declining in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory in light of recent events.
“We are still figuring out the implications for press freedom, but so far it seems like journalists are certainly worried about how something they write could potentially be seen as a crime under the law. They are probably more afraid than ever and not just because of what happened on August 10,” she said. These implications include the denial of visas to foreign journalists, as their visas will now be processed under the new national security bureau.
The fear is valid, as foreign journalists in Hong Kong are experiencing delays in visa issuance during a time when relations between U.S. and China are becoming increasingly tense. Even European journalists are facing the consequences of growing oppression in Hong Kong. Aaron Mc Nicholas, an Irish journalist and incoming editor of the Hong Kong Free Press, was denied a work visa after months of waiting.
Changes in the visa issuance process, the delays and consequent denials are deemed as “a weapon in international disputes” by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Hong Kong. After China suggested imposing countermeasures on U.S. media, this warning comes as no surprise.
“The Foreign Correspondent’s Press Club of Hong Kong has written a number of letters to the government in past weeks seeking clarification on how, exactly, the national security law will affect the media. Meanwhile, journalist unions have just filed a joint judicial review challenging a recent warning issued by the government to the public broadcaster RTHK over an episode of its satirical show that allegedly “insulted” the police force,” Mary informed, shedding light on the FCC’s efforts in the past few weeks.
Despite local and international condemnation, Hong Kong’s government passed the law. While independent media and journalists might not practice self-censorship among the mounting pressure, some may have to resort to taking necessary steps to avoid being tried under the draconian charges. In July, Hong Kong police arrested four youths, including three males and one female — all of whom were students aged between 16 to 20, for their social media posts. Booksellers and publishers are also at the risk of running afoul of laws following vague terminology. They felt the law’s chilling effect before it was even implemented.
“Libraries have started taking books off the shelves, state-owned media have started taking down outlets and there are reports of people deleting old articles and social media posts. So, for an average person, there will absolutely be self-censorship,” Laurel said.
She added that Hong Kong’s free press is part of what makes the country special. Despite the hurdles, Apple Daily live streamed the raid and continued to design the next day’s paper, its front page bearing the photograph of Jimmy Lai with a headline that read ‘We’re going to keep fighting’. Additionally, there are reports of artists sharing dissident art online to resist censorship.
A* reiterated Laurel’s thoughts on self-censorship but also shared that the future is still unpredictable.
“At this point, I do not think things have worsened in Hong Kong. We still have some kind of freedom of speech. But I am not optimistic about the future, so it may come true someday, we just do not know when exactly this will happen,” she said.
Shirley, however, remains cautious, following fears related to the law.
“I created a page on social media last year with my true identity on it, with more than 20,000 followers. I have deactivated it after the new national security law was enacted. One can never tell what would happen under the law because we never know where the red line is,” she said.
Mary said that there is no way of knowing whether interviewing and quoting someone who’s been arrested under the national security law, like Jimmy Lai, can be deemed in violation of the legislation.
“I do think it is very much within the realm of possibility that the authorities may try and argue that showing support on social media for someone like Jimmy Lai, and writing news articles that are critical of the arrest and newsroom raid, can amount to aiding and abetting,” she said.
When responding to a question about the future of journalism in Hong Kong, especially for women journalists, Mary mentioned that it has always been a challenging industry to work in, given its relatively low salaries and the city’s high costs of living.
“The national security law, needless to say, has made it even more difficult. Hong Kong is one of the most important stories in the world right now, and I hope journalists will be able to continue reporting on it in spite of all the challenges,” she stated.
Siaw shared that despite the obstacles, women journalists are more eager to join the industry, given the increase in the number of journalism graduates.
“In the past, students who graduated from journalism will tend to find other jobs instead of being journalists. In these past two years, more graduates chose to enter the industry to fight for justice, human rights, and freedom in Hong Kong,” Siaw said.
A* does not seem too optimistic about the future. Working as a journalist in Hong Kong, according to her, is hard. The low pay, tough and unsafe working conditions, in addition to the suppression of the press make it difficult to stay in her field. Even so, she does not want to give up, driven by an aim to see democracy and freedom reign to its utmost potential.
Even though A* does not believe in segregating the work of journalists based on their gender, she does feel that the situation could become increasingly difficult for women journalists, given the implementation of the national security law.
“Women journalists may face more sexual harassment and discrimination by police than male journalists, as female activists and demonstrators also face similar issues. They are teased by the police for their physique and appearance,” she said.
After having faced police brutality and harassment — her personal data disclosed on a pro-Beijing website — Shirley’s words resonated despair. She stated that the risks for all journalists would be similar, but the situation would be tougher and harsher for women journalists.
“Young journalists must be very aware of the risks, especially when working in situations such as last year’s social movement. I have seen quite a number of occasions of young women journalists being shot with rubber bullets by the police,” said Shirley.
Press and journalists in Hong Kong have been under immense pressure since covering the 2019 protests, triggered by the extradition law in the country. Not only were journalists injured while reporting on the ground, but several journalists were targeted online for their stories on the matter, which only escalated with time. The national security law has intensified the fear of persecution within the industry, though many still believe that sharing the stories and speaking the truth must not be sacrificed in the face of threats.
Shirley believes that the best way to fight is to continue reporting, regardless of threats, in order to uphold the freedom of the press. She urged that those who believe in press freedom should support it financially by buying newspapers or subscribing online.
“The general sentiment is sad and quite hopeless indeed, but Hong Kong’s people still find their way to show their support for freedom of press,” she said.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law entails freedom of the press, but the country’s poor performance in the past few years reflects a grim picture in press freedom indices. Media in Hong Kong is considered to be independent and vibrant, but in light of recent events surrounding the national security law, those in the independent media are left worried — the government clearly warning them to abide by the law or be penalized for dissent. Given the murky state of press freedom in the country, which is gradually adapting to China’s suppressive ways, one can only hope to see the press remain vibrant and free.
This story was originally published in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism