Over the past weeks, I have started and stopped writing this piece more times than I can count. I have run through it in my head over and over, sat down in front of my computer and typed away furiously at my keyboard. But every time I had written either a few lines or a few paragraphs, it seemed some new piece of news would emerge from Hong Kong, and I was forced to stop and consider it.
It began in early July when Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded to a question posed to her by a HKFP reporter seeking a response to a letter sent by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong. The FCC was seeking a guarantee that journalists would be free to report on any topics they saw fit under the new national security law. Lam’s response: “If the Foreign Correspondents’ Club or all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 percent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same.”
This was followed by the news that New York Times journalist Chris Buckley was denied a work visa renewal for Hong Kong by the Immigration Department. He had been refused a visa renewal for the mainland in May.
About a week later on July 21, at a protest in Yuen Long, more than one hundred journalists were “kettled” with cordon tape to have their credentials inspected. At least two were fined for not having proper identification, even though Hong Kong does not have an official press credentials system.
Then, last week, news broke of the arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai under the national security law. At the same time, the offices of Apple Daily were raided by 200 police officers.
On top of all of this, the Hong Kong Immigration Department is delaying the granting of work visas to foreign journalists. The department has refused to explain lengthy wait times, even after receiving a letter from the FCC asking about the issue, saying that the processing time for applicants depended on individual “merits and circumstances.”
Any of these events by itself would warrant a questioning of the situation under the new national security law. Taken together, along with the numerous arrests of pro-democracy figures throughout the city and the warrants issued for six living abroad, they make one wonder if Beijing is simply trying to fully change Hong Kong through “Lingchi” (i.e. death by a thousand cuts) at a much-accelerated pace, and move the 50-year goalposts forward.
But some statements have been much less opaque.
Following the arrest of Jimmy Lai and the raid on Apple Daily, police said they would decide which media outlets had close access to their operations. Commissioner Chris Tang said in an interview: “It depends on the past performance of those media — whether they behaved in a way that the police deemed unprofessional … Criteria include whether their reporting is objective, whether they have participated in actions other than reporting, whether they would obstruct officers from performing their duty or if they would pose danger to officers.”
The encroachments on press freedom that so worried the press corps when the text of the national security law was released are apparently coming to fruition. While freedom of the press is guaranteed in both the Basic Law and the national security law, the caveats that are written into the national security law are clearly starting to be applied in an attempt to silence those who report on subjects that authorities would rather not see in print, or whose opinions don’t toe the party line.
But the free press is not dead in Hong Kong. And it won’t go down quietly, no matter what happens next.
The FCC continues to seek answers from the Hong Kong Immigration Department about the issuing of visas for the foreign press.
Nine international press freedom organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders have jointly signed a letter urging the governments of China and Hong Kong to stop the arrests, harassment and intimidation of journalists, and demand “the protection of democratic and media freedoms.”
And then there are the Hongkongers themselves. Letters and statements to government officials are one thing, but boots on the ground are something much harder to ignore. People gathered at malls across the city to support press freedom in the wake of the raid on Apple Daily. Copies of the newspaper were bought up throughout the city, and the stock price soared over 1,000 percent in a show of support, to the great consternation of pro-Beijing media outlets. Police said the protesters were taking part in an unauthorized protest, and again checked press passes, but the Hongkongers who came out were clearly heard.
A free press has always been the thin grey line between the public and those in power who want to stop the flow of unwelcome information. But the journalists’ ability to do their work and provide that line depends not just on themselves, but on the support of those who read or watch their work. Hongkongers have shown their support for a free press in their reaction to the Apple Daily raid. And while the huge street protests of last year aren’t possible under Covid-19, the actions of the people last week show that the fighting spirit is still there, and that a free and open press is still something they will battle for.
So don’t mourn the death of the free press in Hong Kong. Don’t think that it is dead and gone. Journalists in the city are still there doing their jobs. And the people still have their backs. To say otherwise is just fake news.
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