On June 30, 2019, Beijing imposed a wide-reaching national security law. Though the situation is uncertain, and the law untested, HKFP is regularly examining how it can adapt amid heightened press freedom concerns.
How is HKFP reacting to the security law?
The security law includes several articles which are of concern to the press, with Article 9 proposing “guidance, supervision and regulation” of the media. It is also noted that press freedom is guaranteed in the security law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and the Chinese constitution.
Though the situation is unclear and the law has yet to be tested in courts, HKFP has nevertheless sought legal and business advice. We expect the local media to be forced to navigate increased bureaucratic and legal scrutiny owing to the passages in the law which make reference to the press.
Will HKFP co-operate with the authorities if they demand data about sources?
All HKFP staff use only work-provided, encrypted phones and we offer several channels for secure communication about sensitive matters.
Under Article 43 of the security law, any refusal to hand over information about a suspect’s identity can lead to a fine or jail sentence. Meanwhile, Article 4 of the security law guarantees the freedom of the press.
HKFP staff are ready to fulfil our commitment to uphold press freedom and protect sources who we may rely on as part of the normal, traditional news-gathering process. All previous data requests from the authorities have been ignored. We will resist such requests to the fullest extent of the law and our means.
Will HKFP’s reporting be affected?
It is difficult to predict how the courts may interpret the law – officials are giving mixed messages over how it affects the press. Specific questions about what is acceptable and not remain unanswered. HKFP is nevertheless strengthening efforts to protect sources and pledges to continue reporting as normal in accordance with the journalistic tradition our own governing Code of Ethics.
In the future, should the authorities force us to censor certain wording or stories, we will resist to the full extent of the law and our means. The HKFP team is committed to the city and do not plan to leave.
Is it still ok to donate to HKFP?
Yes. As always, donations to HKFP are carried out securely via robust, industry-standard encryption. Transaction records are stored behind multiple-factor security. Like any company, the law obliges us to keep records of income/spending for book-keeping purposes. Accounting records are overseen by our accountant and yearly auditors and then physical copies are stored securely outside of the jurisdiction.
As a strictly impartial news outlet registered with the government, we expect to continue accepting contributions from our readers at home and abroad and there is no evidence of this changing. For those who prefer complete anonymity, HKFP accepts Bitcoin and – at our fundraising events and through CoinDragon – we accept cash. We also accept donations of gear or sponsorship of running costs. There are over a dozen ways to support us – please contact us for further details.
Can contributors ask for content to be removed? Can writers use a pseudonym?
Since adopting our Code of Ethics in 2020, we do not allow new writers to use pseudonyms except in “very exceptional circumstances.” This is in the interests of accountability, transparency and credibility.
For similar reasons, HKFP will resist all requests to remove content from its archive – a historical record – except in extreme, provable circumstances and at our discretion.
The security law remains untested and is not retrospective, so we do not expect to update our ethics code or “self-censor” current or past news reporting.
Has press freedom been affected since the security law was enacted?
After the security law was adopted, police arrested the owner of the pro-democracy Apple Daily Jimmy Lai in August, 2020 for allegedly “colluding” with foreign forces. Over 100 officers then raided the tabloid’s offices. Later that month, the Immigration Department denied a work visa for HKFP’s incoming editor without reason. In September, 2020, new police guidelines stated that the Force would no longer recognise local press passes and – instead – only outlets registered with the government would be recognised. In November 2020, an RTHK journalist who investigated the police was arrested over accessing vehicle registration records amid a wider crackdown on the public broadcaster. It has also been reported that the government is considering a “fake news” law, whilst a Beijing official has said media outlets should be governed “by patriots” in Hong Kong.
An op-ed in The Guardian by HKFP’s chief editor:
Beijing’s far-reaching security law was foisted on Hong Kong with breathtaking speed, sweeping aside guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press overnight. Analogies of slow-boiling frogs and civil liberties suffering a “death by a thousand cuts” now feel redundant as independent media outlets scramble to future-proof themselves against vaguely worded legislation that carries a punishment of life imprisonment for crimes such as “subversion” and “collusion.”
I founded Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) as a response to dwindling press freedoms after cutting my teeth reporting on the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. As a non-profit, it was the city’s first crowdfunded outlet – transparent, impartial, governed by an ethical code and built to resist censorship. But it was all based on the free press guarantees in the city’s mini-constitution.
Five years later, a draconian new law allows for “guidance, supervision and regulation” of the media and empowers police and agents to potentially conduct warrantless raids of newsrooms, seize devices, demand decryption help and conduct covert surveillance. Suspects will face closed-door trials with hand-picked judges. Meanwhile, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, has repeatedly hit out at the press, claiming HKFP’s questions are “biased” and telling me last week that press freedom will only be guaranteed if journalists promise to obey the new law.
Hongkongers were promised the legislation would affect only a miniscule number of extremists but – within a fortnight – the authorities have already made a popular protest slogan illegal, pulled democracy books from library shelves, banned a protest song in schools, raided a polling institution and arrested demonstrators for wielding blank placards.
Will newspapers be allowed to report on forbidden slogans? Can we interview independence activists? Are opinion pieces questioning one-party rule illegal? The government will not give us straight answers to questions about the security law – and that is by design. Fuzziness is a feature, not a bug – the authorities want journalists to overcompensate, tip-toe around ill-defined red lines, and ultimately self-censor. Beijing’s playbook also suggests small outlets like ours will be subjected to legal and bureaucratic terrorism – dragging us through the courts and red tape to drain our meagre resources and bandwidth.
Nevertheless, our newsroom is here to stay. Following a year of teargas and pepper spray on the protest frontlines, our five-person team has no appetite for self-censorship, and we are having open and honest weekly discussions to safeguard against allowing fear to infect our work. We have frequent security audits, and each of us has decided that we are ready to face a fine or imprisonment to protect our sources, many of whom are reluctant to speak now at all. Over the past week, we have also consulted legal and business experts to ensure our long-term viability and income no matter what the future holds.
Just over the northern border, a long list of ageing press freedom defenders are at risk of dying in Chinese prisons following spurious national security convictions – Ilham Tohti, Gulmira Imin, Gui Minhai, Huang Qi, Lu Jianhua and Yiu Mantin to name a few. When it comes to civil liberties in Hong Kong, it remains to be seen whether things will resemble Singapore, mainland China or – at worst – Xinjiang in a year’s time. But we should make preparations for the latter as, too often, the world has been naive when it comes to Beijing’s promises and the lengths to which it will go to suppress criticism in its restive peripheries.
Hongkongers are all too aware that they cannot win. A popular song lyric and piece of graffiti last year read: “This revolution will have no winners, but bear witness to it.” As journalists in Hong Kong, things can seem equally hopeless – there is no longer such a thing as a “slow news day” and it often feels like we are just documenting the rearrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic. However, since citizens have no voice at the ballot box, and with a media landscape dominated by pro-establishment titles, there is even more motivation for us to bear witness, act as a watchdog and hold the powerful to account. It is time to stand firm and resist intimidation – our mission at HKFP will not be changing.
Tom Grundy is the Editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press.