Hong Kong reporter guilty verdict as media face ‘head-on attack’
HONG KONG – The Hong Kong police chief has warned reporters that they could be investigated for reporting “false news.” A Chinese government-controlled newspaper has called for a ban on the city’s largest pro-democracy media outlet. Masked men ransacked the offices of a publication critical of the Chinese Communist Party and destroyed its presses.
Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom in Asia, the cradle of much more aggressive and independent journalism than that found next door in mainland China, has been under sustained pressure for years.
Today, as Beijing strives to root out dissent in the city, the media is under direct attack. Traditional pressure tactics, such as advertising boycotts, have been overshadowed by the kind of bare-bones campaign that could leave leading journalists silenced and their media transformed or shut down.
Recent targets include free-wheeling pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, whose founder was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week, and RTHK, a public broadcaster known for its extensive investigations. On Thursday, one of the network’s award-winning producers, Choy Yuk-ling, was found guilty of making false claims. to obtain public records for a report that criticized the police. She was ordered to pay a fine of 6,000 Hong Kong dollars, or approximately 775 dollars.
“It looks like we’ve turned a bit of a corner quite recently,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Center for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong. “Self-censorship is still a problem and doesn’t know where the red lines are, but now we are seeing what appears to be more of a head-on attack on the media in Hong Kong.”
Beijing has long wanted to bring Hong Kong in line. The city, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory since the British returned its former colony in 1997, ruled by its own rules. Residents enjoyed unseen freedoms on the continent, including unlimited internet access, the right to protest and an independent press.
But after large protests in 2019 rocked the city and at times turned violent, China’s central government seized on the unrest to quell. He imposed a tough national security law last year, criminalizing many forms of anti-government speech. Then he changed Hong Kong’s electoral system, tightening the pro-Beijing establishment’s grip on power.
Pro-democracy lawmakers have been removed from office. The protest movement was silenced. The activists were jailed. And journalists found themselves in the government’s crosshairs.
A Hong Kong court on Thursday found that Ms Choy, an independent producer, had broken the law by using a public database of license plate registers as part of an investigation into a mob attack in July 2019 in a train station, in which 45 people were injured. The activists accused the police of turning a blind eye to the violence.
The journalist, also known as Bao Choy, helped produce detailed documentaries for RTHK that examined who was behind the attacks and why the police were slow to respond. She was arrested in November and charged with making false statements about why she used the publicly available database.
Ms Choy said her case shows how authorities are trying to crack down on the news media and restrict access to information once available to the public.
“I realized since my arrest that it was not my individual problem,” she said in an interview. “It’s a bigger press freedom issue in Hong Kong.”
Press freedom groups denounced Ms. Choy’s arrest and described her as part of a harassment campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the government’s case “an absurdly disproportionate action which amounts to an attack on press freedom”.
The case against Ms Choy is the latest move against RTHK, Hong Kong’s leading public radio and television network, which has for years offered hard-hitting reports criticizing the government. The outlet’s charter gives it editorial independence, but as a government entity, it has little protection against officials who wish to see it brought under tighter control. Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said last week that the government should consider shutting it down completely.
Just months after the National Security Law was passed, the Hong Kong government demanded that the RTHK be more closely overseen by government-appointed advisers.
The head of the RTHK, a veteran journalist and editor, was replaced in February by a civil servant with no journalism experience. Under this new leader, Patrick Li, two radio programs known for their heated political commentary have been suspended.
Episodes of a TV program focused on the city’s electoral overhaul and two documentaries were pulled hours before their scheduled airing. A program on student activists was canceled after the broadcaster said it failed to meet standards of fairness and impartiality and included an inaccurate description of the national security law.
RTHK reporters said they had been warned that their salaries could be cut to cover the costs of censored programs. Journalists at the broadcaster aren’t sure exactly where the new boundaries are and how to do their jobs, current and former employees said.
Reporters Without Borders, the media freedom group, said on Tuesday that the security law posed a threat to journalists and that the RTHK “was the subject of a full-fledged campaign of intimidation by the part of the government with the aim of restricting its editorial autonomy ”.
The Hong Kong government rejected the claim that RTHK was being targeted and said it was “appalled” by the suggestion “that people in a particular profession should be immune from legal sanctions.”
The international media have also come under pressure in Hong Kong. A Financial Times editor-in-chief was forced to leave the city in 2018, apparently in retaliation for his role in hosting a conference by a pro-independence activist. The New York Times has moved a number of editors from Hong Kong to Seoul, in part because of work visa renewal issues.
The Epoch Times, a newspaper linked to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in mainland China, dealt with even more brutal attacks. On April 12, four men stormed the newspaper printing press, destroying presses and computers. The newspaper said no one was hurt and was able to resume publication soon after.
“The Epoch Times is not afraid of violent coercion,” Cheryl Ng, a spokesperson, said in a statement.
Perhaps the biggest target to date has been Jimmy Lai, the outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party who founded Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week after being convicted of unauthorized assembly in two protests in 2019. But his legal jeopardy is far from over.
The Apple Daily newsroom was raided by police last year, and Mr. Lai faces National Security Law charges for allegedly calling for US sanctions against Hong Kong. Under the law, crimes “of a serious nature”, an intentionally ambiguous term, carry penalties of up to life imprisonment, but it is not known whether the charges he faces would comply with this provision.
The authorities do not hesitate to threaten journalists. They made their views known in the pages of the state media, on the prosecution of the local legislature and at the police headquarters.
State-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong have stepped up their criticism of Apple Daily, calling for it to be regulated, or even closed, under the National Security Act.
“If Apple Daily is not removed, a vacuum still exists in Hong Kong’s national security,” Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper belonging to the Beijing Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said last week.
Ms. Ip, the pro-establishment MP, made it clear to RTHK reporters what she said was their role. In a legislative session last week, she said that a media reporter should be willing “to be the spokesperson for the government”.
Chris Tang, the Hong Kong Police Commissioner, warned last week that publications that produce “fake news” could be investigated, and called for new laws to help regulate the media .
Nonetheless, many journalists say they will not be intimidated by the government’s efforts to hush up their reporting.
“Some are disillusioned,” said Gladys Chiu, president of the RTHK Program Staff Union. “But some think there is still room to fight.”