Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said she will give guarantees about press freedom to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) if they also give “a 100 per cent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation.”

Lam was asked by HKFP about the letters the club had written asking her for assurances that journalists would be able to write on any topic, and will not be ordered to remove content, under the controversial national security law enacted last week.

“It is not a question of me standing here to give you a guarantee of what you may or may not do in the days and weeks and years ahead,” she said on Tuesday at a weekly press briefing. “But the law has clearly defined the four types of acts and activities which we need to prevent and curb and punish in accordance with the law.”

Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. File photo: inmediahk.net via CC.2.0.

Lam added that article 4 of the legislation protects press freedom.

Surveillance and searches

The FCC’s latest letter came after the government failed to address the concerns of the press club in light of Beijing’s new national law for the city, with broadly defines offences against secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.

As of Tuesday, police have been empowered to conduct searches at private properties without a warrant, freeze assets, intercept communications and require publishers to remove information.

Publishers face a fine of HK$100,000 and one year of imprisonment for failing to cooperate with the authorities if they seize electronic devices and demand information is removed. Service providers who fail to comply with requests for relevant identification records or decryption assistance are liable upon conviction to a fine of HK$100,000 and six months behind bars.

Hong Kong Journalists Association Chair Chris Yeung said on Tuesday that Lam’s comments had a chilling effect that restricted reporters from exploring certain topics: “What Lam said gave the impression that press freedom is not protected… Reporters may feel the pressure to remove certain content on media platforms.”

In response to Lam’s comments, the FCC said it respects the laws of the SAR. But the press club pointed out that the government has not responded to their detailed questions on the “undefined” terms in the new law.

They urged the city’s leader to give a more “complete and comprehensive” response to journalists’ concerns created by the “vagaries” of the legislation. They also invited Lam to take questions from members of the press at an open forum at the club.

“To operate within the new law, the media needs to know precisely what is permissible. We look forward to receiving clarification from the Chief Executive, as well as having her come to the FCC to speak,” the press club wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

Last week, Paris-based international NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on democracies to take “immediate action” to prevent Beijing from “stifling” Hong Kong’s press freedom. The watchdog accused China as pursuing to establish a “new world media order” under the newly-enforced national security law.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.