As June turned to July and the first half of the year comes to a close, a dark cloud has come down over Hong Kong. Beijing has passed its national security law.

Journalists were already worried about the prospect of the law. The Hong Kong Journalists Association released the results of a survey on June 19 showing that a large majority of media staffers in the city were already nervous about what the results would be, even before seeing the draft of the law.

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File photo: GovHK.

The survey found 98 per cent of those who responded flatly opposed the law. 87 per cent believed that freedom of the press would be “severely affected.” 90 per cent said journalists’ safety would be threatened, 93 per cent said that they feared media outlets would be punished for covering sensitive subjects, and 63 per cent said they were “very pessimistic” about the future of press freedom in Hong Kong.

Now that the text of the national security law has been released, the fears of the Hong Kong press corps have been proven right. While large portions of the law deal with the offences and penalties for secession, subversion, terrorist activities, collusion with foreign governments and external elements that all endanger national security, the text also has numerous areas that can be seen as enabling constraints on the free press.

Article 4 does state that the freedom of the press that is enshrined in the Basic Law will be protected under this new security law. That promise is quickly compromised by other parts of the text.

Article 10, for example, states that “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall promote national security education through…the media, the internet and other means.” Does this mean that the media now must pay service to the government by publishing stories that tout the security law? And who would write these stories?

national security law
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Article 27 states “a person who advocates terrorism or incites the commission of a terrorist activity shall be guilty of an offence.” Does that mean, for example, that an author who writes an article that leads people to protest has committed an offence?

Article 29 states that a person who provides state secrets to a foreign country or institution, organization or individual has committed an offence. In subsection 5, it further criminalises “provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government or the Government of the region, which is likely to cause serious consequences.” Does this mean that a journalist who writes a story critical of a government policy has committed an offence? And what if this article then drives people to protest government actions?

And from Article 31: “The operation of an incorporated or unincorporated body such as a company or an organization shall be suspended or its license or business permit shall be revoked if the body has been punished for committing an offence under this Law.“

media press freedom police journalist journalism
File photo: United Social Press.

So in the same case of a journalist writing an article, has the news outlet then also committed an offence by publishing the article and could that result in it losing its licence?

Articles 34 and 37 collectively state that persons who are permanent residents of Hong Kong or persons who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong may be deported for breaking the law. Can journalists in Hong Kong be deported for what they write regardless of their residency status?

Article 38 is the one which concerns me personally. It states that the law applies to offences against the law by those who are not permanent residents of the region and are outside of the region. Does that mean that while I sit here in New York, and write an article about the national security law, am I now guilty of an offence for questioning the law?

The next time I come to Hong Kong to visit, do I have to worry about the police arresting me under the law? And seeing as I live abroad, will I be warned that I have broken the law ahead of time through some official channel? Will there be a no-fly list if I go to book a fight? Are new visa rules going to be implemented so that I would now need to apply for one even to visit Hong Kong?

hong kong international airport quarantine order coronavirus
Empty check-in counters at departure hall. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

But the biggest issue for the free press is Article 54. The text states that “The Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region… 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 passage allows for the government to oversee, and perhaps attempt to control, what articles are and are not published by news outlets in Hong Kong, even those based outside of the Region. This would potentially leave the press in Hong Kong as no more than government mouthpieces, only being allowed to publish what is approved. It is also an overt attempt to squash any coverage of the Region that the government deems as unfit worldwide in an attempt to control all media outlets. It goes against the freedom of the press enshrined in the Basic Law.

These are all very serious questions that must be answered clearly in order to ensure that the free press in Hong Kong, as it is enshrined in the Basic Law and as Article 4 in the National Security Law, continues.

Article 62 says that this new law will apply where provisions of the local laws of Hong Kong are inconsistent with this Law. Since both enshrine a free press, does the Basic Law still hold power? Article 65 leaves the power of interpretation of the Law to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, so does this mean that they now have power over the press?

The freedom of the press must endure in Hong Kong. It is one of the bedrocks that make Hong Kong the amazing international city that it is. With its erosion, along with that of free speech, publication and demonstration, the Basic Law and its promises will disappear.

Protesters have already been arrested for breaking the law, including a fifteen-year-old girl who was waving a pro-independence flag. This, within 24 hours of the law coming into effect, does not bode well for the future of press freedom in Hong Kong.

How long will it be before they come for the journalists? And if there is no one to write the stories, how will we know when they do come, and who they will come for next?

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Robert Gerhardt is a freelance photographer and writer currently based in New York. He is a member of the National Press Photographers Association in the United States, and an absentee member of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Hong Kong.