Hong Kong is turning into a “city of fear” where “open discussion is stifled” and the national security legislation “effectively acts as a trip wire for all journalists,” the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) wrote in its latest report.

The international media watchdog released the report on Hong Kong’s press freedom on Friday with the headline: “Lights Out: Is this the End of Press Freedom in Hong Kong?”

Photo: IFJ.

The report said the city’s authorities already had “a number of powerful weapons” in their hands, including the national security law, in order to turn the “once open city” into “just another mainland Chinese city.”

The IFJ summarised that, since the enactment of the law, some 20 journalists and press freedom activists have been arrested, while at least 12 media workers have been charged or are awaiting trial.

“[F]ear and uncertainty have come to dominate life in the city. There is a now palpable sense that the fight for democracy and media freedom has entered its end game,” the report said.

Citing the arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai under national security offences and the forced closure of his tabloid Apple Daily last June, the IFJ said the security law was “used to crush” the largest pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong.

The report also mentioned Hong Kong authorities’ use of the colonial-era sedition law to arrest seven figures associated with Stand News, which led to the independent outlet’s closure, and Citizen News’ voluntary shutdown soon after “for staff protection.”

Jimmy Lai being transferred onto a Correctional Services vehicle on February 1, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

After the closure of the two independent outlets, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said the national security law brought no damage the city’s press freedom when HKFP asked if the closures amounted to a “chilling effect.”

“If implementation of the national security law would undermine press freedom, then we would not be seeing any press freedom in the western world,” Lam said.

But according to IFJ, the “vague terms, fluid definitions and shifting interpretations” of the national security law have made it difficult for journalists to navigate, while self-censorship has become more common in films, books and the visual arts.

Besides, the IFJ said there were increased restrictions on access to public records, intimidation of sources, and online harassment from pro-Beijing media, for those who continue to report in Hong Kong.

Former acting chief editor of Stand News Patrick Lam was seen taken away by national security police on December 28, 2021. Photo: Supplied.

In the press release that accompanied the report, the watchdog said it was “gravely concerned at the rapid collapse of Hong Kong’s free media” and for the “ongoing safety and well-being of professional and independent journalists” in the city.

The IFJ also called for governments internationally to support journalists seeking to leave the city or find temporary refuge to continue their careers in exile.

International condemnation

On Tuesday, a statement issued by the Media Freedom Coalition condemned the press freedom crackdown in Hong Kong and the arrests of journalists at Stand News. It was signed by 23 western countries.

The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in UK said in response that after the implementation of the national security law, Hong Kong has restored stability and press freedom has since been better protected, citing an increase in the number of international media outlets and reporters at Hong Kong.

File photo: Studio Incendo.

On Wednesday evening, a Hong Kong government spokesperson rebuffed the “misleading and baseless allegations by foreign entities.”

The spokesperson said that press freedom was guaranteed by the law and “the media landscape in Hong Kong is as vibrant as ever.” They also said as long as it is not in violation of the law, the media’s “freedom of commenting on or even criticising government policies remains uninhibited.”

The spokesperson said all national security law enforcement actions “have nothing to do with their occupation, background or political stance.”

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.