Since my last press freedom round-up in early June, much has happened in Hong Kong. Apple Daily closed, the trial of the first person arrested under the National Security Law began, more democratic politicians have resigned their posts and others wait in jail for their court date.

RTHK continues to cancel programming and scrubbing its archive, and threats to the free press arise both through potential new legislation and the effects of the National Security Law, now into its second year.

Supporters of Apple Daily hold its final edition outside the newspaper’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O on June 24, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

In the midst of all of these developments, last month I exchanged emails with a journalist acquaintance of mine in Hong Kong.

“[Y]ou really have to be here to get a true feeling of what is happening,” he replied. “Things like issuing statements and the language that you can use take on a different perspective when you are actually living under the national security law.”

The point he makes directly speaks to me, a resident of New York City. I do not live under the pressure that the national security law exerts on those living and working in Hong Kong.

So why do I write about Hong Kong and press freedom around the Asia-Pacific in general? In this day and age, in a connected world, nothing happens in a vacuum. What affects Hong Kong has echoes on other parts of the globe. Methods used to suppress the press in Hong Kong and around Asia mirror those used in other countries.

The closure of Apple Daily sent shivers through the corps of journalists in Hong Kong. While freedom of the press is enshrined in the Basic Law, the closure indicates just how much the national security law has undermined that basic principle.

But Apple Daily is far from the first newspaper or other outlet to shut down.

Jimmy Lai. Photo: Studio Incendo.

In a report last month, Reporters without Borders listed 22 newspapers shut down by governments looking to silence the press. It includes the Cambodia Daily which was forced to shut down in 2017, and numerous outlets in Myanmar that the junta has closed in the wake of the February 1 coup. But the list is not just limited to Asia. Governments in countries including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Nicaragua, Tajikistan, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Niger, Venezuela, and Hungary have also shuttered news outlets over critical governmental coverage.

Jimmy Lai is also not the first journalist to be arrested and charged under various laws for their work. As of this writing, Reporters Without Borders counts at least 433 journalists in 35 countries behind bars. The number includes six currently in Hong Kong: Wan Yiu-sing, Gwyneth Ho, Claudia Mo, Cheung Kim-Hung, Ryan Law and the previously mentioned Jimmy Lai. All but Lai were arrested since February of this year.

Just on Thursday, four more Apple Daily journalists appeared in court under national security law charges and were refused bail.

In Bangladesh Tanvir Hasan Tanu, Rahim Shuvo, and Abdul Latif Lituar are all being investigated under the country’s Digital Security Act over coverage of Covid-19. They each face three to five years in jail if convicted. Belarusian authorities have been arresting journalists and raiding newsrooms over reports critical of the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. In Cuba journalists have been harassed and detained over coverage of the ongoing protests against the communist government.

Photo: RSF.

Reporters Without Borders also counts 20 journalists killed so far in 2021. Just since my last column, that number has grown by six: Maharram Ibrahimov and Siraj Abyshev in Azerbaijan (both on June 4th), Sulabh Srivastava in India (June 13), Alesksandr Lashkarava in Georgia (July 11), Peter R. de Vries in Holland (July 15), and Reuters’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Danish Siddiqui in Afghanistan (July 16).

Earlier this month, the organisation named Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam as one of its 37 Press Freedom Predators for 2021. A blistering report terms her a puppet of Chinese President Xi Jinping who defends his positions on press censorship. It also cites her refusal to recognise the physical violence against journalists by the police during the 2019 protests; her targeting of Apple Daily and its subsequent closing; her “judicial harassment” of Jimmy Lai; and her campaign against Radio Television Hong Kong and subsequent editorial interference.

Of the 37 people listed on the report, 13 are from Asia. Along with Lam there is Gotabaya Rajapaska (Sri Lanka), Hun Sen (Cambodia), Imran Khan (Pakistan), Kim Jong-Un (North Korea), Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore), Min Aung Hlaing (Myanmar), Narendra Modi (India), Nguyen Phu Trong (Vietnam), Prayut Chan-o-Cha (Thailand), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh), and Xi Jinping (China).

The complete list includes world leaders from every continent. All are willing to use every tool at their disposal to silence the press, through enacting or enforcing draconian laws, intimidation by security forces, closing down news outlets, cutting internet access, arbitrary arrests, and in some cases murder.

US President Donald Trump meets the media on April 4. Photo: The White House/Flickr.

Under President Trump the United States was unwilling to work with allies to try and take a stand for journalists. Trump’s constant statements about “fake news” and journalists being “the enemy of the people” did nothing to help. Those complaints were in turn echoed by other world leaders, adding to the harm they caused. His use of the US Justice Department to secretly obtain e-mails and phone numbers from journalists to try and uncover their sources was beyond the pale.

With the protests over the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the United States also saw more then 400 journalists assaulted and 139 arrested in 2020 according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. So far in 2021, 52 journalists have been either arrested or detained and 80 more have been assaulted.

Recent polling by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford found that the United States ranks last out of 46 countries for trust in the media. Just 29 per cent of people surveyed said they trusted the media, while 75 per cent of those on the right thought news coverage was biased.

President Biden has vowed to protect the press, and Merrick Garland, the new head of the Justice Department, has implemented new rules that will no longer allow journalists’ records to be seized. But fixing trust in the media, even in the United States, is not going to happen quickly given the politically charged environment and Trump’s continued control of his right-wing base. And whether the Biden administration can take steps on the international stage to protect press freedom around the world remains to be seen.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Now a new threat has emerged: Pegasus. The spyware programme developed by Israeli company NSO has been found on the phones of journalists, activists, politicians and heads of state around the world. The numbers of more than 180 journalists are among phone numbers that, it is believed, have been identified as people of interest by clients of NSO, although there is no information on whether their phones were in fact bugged.

These are very chilling revelations and show just how far some governments will go to try and silence dissent and how anyone can be a target.

It doesn’t matter where you are. As attacks against journalists continue around the world, world leaders pass and enforce laws against fake news, and spyware gathers data on those who seek the truth, the world becomes a much less safe place. From Hong Kong to New York City these manoeuvres reach across borders.

And until those would silence free speech and the free press face real consequences for their actions, journalists, activists and anyone who speaks truth to power will continue to suffer worldwide.


HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us.

Robert Gerhardt

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.