China’s heightened focus on national security over the past year has “cast a shadow” over Hong Kong’s press freedom, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said on Sunday.

In its 2018 annual report, the HKJA said the Hong Kong government has been emphasising “one country” over “two systems” under the direction of the central government. Chairperson Chris Yeung said at a press conference that the treatment of law professor Benny Tai and the Hong Kong National Party were examples of the government’s “tightened bottom line” on national security.

HKJA report press freedom
From left: Shirley Yam, Chris Yeung, Carol Lai. Photo: Citizen News.

The report, entitled “Candle in the Wind,” said that the national security law loomed over diminishing freedom: “The imminent enactment of Basic Law Article 23 is now being justified in the name of protecting national security, but it would deprive Hong Kong of her existing freedom of expression.”

The association recommended against rolling out the controversial law, which was scrapped in 2003 amid mass protests, and said a freedom of information law should instead be enacted. It also urged the government to improve the protection of journalists working in the mainland.

Responding to the recently proposed ban on the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, Yeung said the police decision to cite media interviews as evidence would encourage censorship.

“On the one hand, people giving interviews can’t speak freely because they don’t know if the police will use the media report as evidence; on the other hand, media outlets will be worried if the report crossed the ‘red line’… and this will make them censor themselves,” Yeung said.

hong kong journalists association press freedom
Photo: HKFP.

In a statement issued on July 21, the HKJA said it was “worried” whether media outlets would be seen as assisting unlawful activities by reporting on them. 

The annual report also mentioned instances of self-censorship at RTHK’s Headliner, HK01’s reports on the June 4 massacre, as well as the South China Morning Post’s retraction of a financial column and its decision to partake in a coerced interview with a detained bookseller in China.

Pro-Beijing online media 

The HKJA also said that the government had made no progress on an archives law or freedom of information law, the absence of which continues to hamper journalists’ ability to conduct research.

“The freedom of information law and archives law are twins, and we can’t do without either one. But right now Hong Kong has neither,” said HKJA Vice-chairperson Shirley Yam.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. File photo: LegCo.

Yam said that HKJA had been fighting for the two laws since the 1990s but without success. She said Chief Executive Carrie Lam mentioned an archives law in her policy platform, and that Lam promised a law reform proposal soon.

“But even if the government begins consultation tomorrow, it will be a few years until it is written into law. What are the odds for the national security law to be implemented in the meantime?” Yam said.

The HKJA recognised that the government had loosened its control over online-only media, giving outlets more access to government events. However, Yeung said it was a “small favour” and the government was just fulfilling its duty.

media journalism press freedom reporters
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Yeung also said there was an increasing trend of “red capital,” especially in support of pro-Beijing online media. He said that wealthy Chinese-backed media organisations may monopolise the industry and hurt diversity.

“The Chinese government is concerned about the discourse in Hong Kong, and it may think that the media landscape is dominated by pro-democracy or anti-establishment outlets,” Yeung said. “So it will establish online media through different organisations, so as to – in their eyes – provide balance and counter their influence.”

The report listed Speakout, HKGpao, Orange News, Lite News Hong Kong and Dot Dot News as examples of outlets backed by Chinese money.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.