Hong Kong crackdown on press freedom “will be speeded up,” the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) on Monday, as pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily came under fire in the pro-Beijing press for “starting the fake news trend.”

State-owned newspaper Ta Kung Pao accused Apple Daily and other pro-democracy “yellow media” of “constantly creating fake news, confusing the public, and seriously harming the credibility of media” in a full-page cover story on Monday.

Next Digital building
Apple Daily’s office in Tseung Kwan O. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP

Ta Kung Pao said that the Apple Daily has “gone unregulated for 23 years,” and cited figures such as pro-Beijing columnist Chris Wat in saying that there was a need to “regulate fake news” in the article on Monday.

The coverage came after the Commissioner of Police Chris Tang said on last Friday that media outlets that endanger the security of Hong Kong by publishing “fake news” will be investigated under the security law.

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In another opinion piece in the Ta Kung Pao last Friday, the commentator urged the Apple Daily to be banned with the national security law: “Apple Daily has become a big loophole in Hong Kong’s national security…” the op-ed read. “Banning media that ‘incite violence and incite independence’ and challenges the national security law such as Apple Daily in accordance with the law is pressing.”

Apple Daily reported on Sunday that the police wrote a letter to the newspaper last Friday, and said that the police force felt “very angry and regretful” about Apple Daily‘s comparison of photographs of children with toy guns at the National Security Education Day with images of armed police during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.

Apple daily April 16, 2021 front page
Apple Daily front page on April 16, 2021.

The police have called Apple Daily’s coverage “immoral” and the description of the photos “distorted.”

In a response to the force, the self-proclaimed “most outspoken pro-democracy media in Hong Kong” said on Sunday that the coverage was based on facts. It said that Apple Daily has editorial independence, and enjoys press freedom according to the Basic Law.

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Photo: Screenshot.

Digital outlet Stand News also came under attack in another op-ed published on Monday in state-run Wen Wei Po, as the commentator said that the media “should not use so-called protective umbrellas such as ‘editorial independence’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to spread fake news boundlessly and with no bottom line.”

“Media that is extremely anti-China and stirring up trouble in Hong Kong such as the Apple Daily and Stand News cannot be unregulated under the Hong Kong national security law,” the op-ed read.

The Beijing-imposed national security law criminalised subversion, secession, foreign interference and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to public transport and other infrastructure.

Fake news accusations ‘inconceivable’

Chris Yeung, chairperson of the HKJA said that Tang’s comments “deepen worries among journalists” that the national security law would be “weaponised” against reporters.

“How come two genuine photos being put together on the front page of a newspaper becomes fake news? That’s just ridiculous, inconceivable,” Yeung told HKFP.

Chris Yeung HKJA
Chris Yeung. File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The press freedom advocate added that allegations of fake news should be “independently accessed,” or else they will remain as “one-sided accusations.”

“Whether those cases are substantiate is unclear, it should be independently accessed by, say, media watchdogs such as the Press Council, or by independent journalism academics.”

“Otherwise, it’s just a one-sided accusation by the police commissioner, perhaps just because he’s not happy with the coverage, he’s not happy with [how] media handle police stories, but this is not a crime,” said Yeung. “Different media have their own editorial policies and judgements, and the way they handle stories are in accordance with their own policies and approach should not be a matter for the law,” added Yeung.

“The curbs on press freedom have already been happening, the events in the past few weeks show that that trend will not just continue, but the pace and the scale will be speeded up and will be upgraded.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.