Speakers at a press freedom event held alongside a United Nations Human Rights Council session have expressed concern about the situation in Hong Kong, prompting the city’s government to slam the occasion as “political manipulation.”

UN media freedom event
The “Media Freedom in Hong Kong” side event at the UN in Geneva on September 27, 2023. Photo: UN Mission Geneva, via Twitter.

Among the speakers at the “Media Freedom in Hong Kong” event in Geneva on Wednesday was Sebastien Lai, the son of detained media mogul Jimmy Lai. His father has been charged under the national security law and it was his 1,000th day in detention on Tuesday.

“He’s a pro-democracy activist, a publisher, and he’s also an incredibly peaceful man… Now that they’ve taken all that he has, keeping him in prison is just cruel,” his son said, according to Reuters.

In a statement published early on Thursday, authorities said the countries concerned should “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong matters, which are purely China’s internal affairs.”

Wednesday’s event was organised by the UK’s mission to the UN and co-sponsored by 20 countries’ missions including Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan and the US. Speakers, who also included a director of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the UK’s representative to the UN and a journalist, discussed the press freedom situation since Beijing imposed a national security law following the protests and unrest of 2019.

National security law
File photo: GovHK.

Describing the occasion as a “so-called event,” the Hong Kong government said it “strongly disapproved of and firmly rejected the baseless remarks, slanders and smears blatantly by the United Kingdom (UK) and other countries.”

“Such remarks amount to political manipulation that disregards and even twists facts,” the statement added.

China’s UN mission in a letter dated Saturday called on member states not to join the event. Hong Kong-related issues were “China’s internal affairs,” it said, adding that the Hong Kong government’s law enforcement and judicial actions “do not target any specific individual or group.”

“China calls upon all esteemed Permanent Missions to refrain from participating in the event in any way,” it wrote.

Chief Executive John Lee
Chief Executive John Lee meeting the press on September 26, 2023. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

At a media sector celebration on Thursday to herald the upcoming National Day, Chief Executive John Lee appeared to reference the UN event.

“Recently, anti-China and anti-Hong Kong forces have once again put on a ‘show’ by staging a so-called event about concerns for press freedom in Hong Kong,” he said in Cantonese.

“They seem to want to fabricate a new lie… that as long as somebody puts on the guise of media work, they cannot be touched even if they engage in criminal activities,” Lee added.

‘Atmosphere of fear’

Press freedom has come under the spotlight since the national security law was enacted in June 2020, under which newsrooms – including Apple Daily and Stand News – have shut and editors have been arrested.

According to the RSF, Hong Kong’s press freedom was ranked 140th among 180 regions in the watchdog’s index this year. In 2019, its ranking stood at 73.

Rebecca Vincent, a director at RSF, said during her speech at the Wednesday event the Chinese mission’s claim in its letter to other missions – that media freedom and other rights in Hong Kong have been “better protected” since the national security law was enacted – could “not be further from the truth.”

“[The Hong Kong government has] created an atmosphere of fear that has had a devastating impact on independent media,” Vincent said, referring to the forced shutdowns of Apple Daily and Stand News.

press freedom reporters journalists
Reporters ask questions at a government press conference in Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The press freedom event came as Lai senior spent his 1,000th day in detention. The pro-democracy media mogul is awaiting the start of his national security trial in December, which was delayed amid a saga over whether he would be allowed to hire a UK-based lawyer.

Lai is also serving a five year and nine months sentence over a fraud charge relating to a lease violation at the Apple Daily headquarters.

While concern groups have expressed worry about reports of difficulties faced by journalists in their line of work and their tendency to self-censor, the government has maintained that the city still enjoys freedom of the press.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.