HONG KONG – The Hong Kong police chief warned reporters that they could be investigated for reporting ‘fake news’. A Chinese government-controlled newspaper called for a ban on the city’s largest pro-democracy news outlet. Masked men looted the offices of a publication criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and destroyed the press.
Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom in Asia, home to journalism far more aggressive and independent than that in mainland China, has been under threat for years. As Beijing moves to eradicate dissent in the city, the news media is under direct attack. Traditional press tactics, such as ad boycotts, have been overshadowed by the kind of bare-knuckle campaign that could silence prominent journalists and change or close their outlets.
Recent targets include the freewheeling pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, whose founder was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week, and RTHK, a public broadcaster known for in-depth investigations. On Thursday, one of the network’s award-winning producers, Choy Yuk-ling, was found guilty of making false statements to obtain public records for a report critical of the police. She was sentenced to a fine of 6,000 Hong Kong dollars, approximately $ 775.
“It looks like we turned a corner quite recently,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. “Self-censorship is still a problem and we don’t know where the red lines are, but now we see what appears to be more of a head-on attack on the Hong Kong media.”
Beijing has long wanted to be on the heels of Hong Kong. The city, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory since the British returned its former colony in 1997, played by its own rules. Residents enjoyed unprecedented freedoms on the mainland, including unfettered access to the Internet, the right to protest and an independent press.
But after major demonstrations in 2019 stirred the city and turned at times violent, the Chinese central government seized the turmoil to work hard. Last year it imposed a strict national security law that criminalized many forms of anti-government statements. It then introduced changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, strengthening the pro-Beijing establishment’s grip on power.
Pro-democracy lawmakers were removed from office. The protest movement was silenced. Activists were jailed. And journalists were in the government’s reticle.
On Thursday, a Hong Kong court ruled that Ms. Choy, a freelance producer, had broken the law when she used a public license plate database as part of an investigation into a July 2019 mafia attack on a train station that injured 45 people. Activists have accused police of turning a blind eye to the violence.
The journalist, also known as Bao Choy, helped make fine-grained documentaries for RTHK that investigated 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 had used the publicly available database.
Ms. Choy said her case showed how authorities tried to crack down on the news media and limit access to information that was once publicly available.
“I realized since my arrest that it is not my individual problem,” she said in an interview. “It’s a bigger issue of press freedom in Hong Kong.”
Press freedom groups have denounced and described Ms. Choy’s arrest as part of a campaign of intimidation. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists called the government’s case “an absurdly disproportionate action amounting to an attack on freedom of the press”.
The case against Mrs. Choy is the latest action against RTHK, Hong Kong’s largest public radio and television network, which has published hard-hitting reports criticizing the government for years. The point of sale charter grants it editorial independence, but as a government agency, it has little protection against officials who want it placed under tighter scrutiny. Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said last week that the government should consider shutting it down altogether.
Just months after the National Security Act was passed, the Hong Kong government called for the RTHK to be more strictly monitored by government-appointed advisers.
The head of RTHK, an experienced reporter and editor, was replaced in February by a civil servant with no experience in journalism. Under that new leader, Patrick Li, two radio programs known for their lively political commentary were suspended.
Episodes of a television show that focused on the city’s electoral overhaul and two documentary programs were pulled hours before they were due to air. A program about student activists was canceled after the broadcaster said it did not meet standards of fairness and impartiality and misrepresented the national security law.
RTHK journalists said they have been warned their wages could be deferred to cover the cost of censored programs. The broadcaster’s journalists are unsure about where the new boundaries lie and how to approach their work, according to current and former employees.
Reporters Without Borders, the media freedom advocate, said on Tuesday that the security law posed a threat to journalists and that RTHK “was subjected to a full-scale campaign of intimidation by the government with the aim of limiting editorial autonomy.”
The Hong Kong government rejected the claim that RTHK was targeted, saying it was “shocked” by the suggestion that “people in a particular profession should be immune from legal sanctions,” RTHK reported.
International news broadcasts are also under pressure in Hong Kong. A Financial Times editor was forced to leave the city in 2018 in apparent retaliation for his role in giving a talk to a pro-independence activist. The New York Times has relocated some editors from Hong Kong to Seoul, partly due to problems obtaining work permits.
Epoch Times, a newspaper associated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement banned in mainland China, has tackled even more blunt attacks. On April 12, four men stormed the newspaper’s printery, destroying presses and computers. The newspaper said no one was injured and could resume publication shortly afterwards.
“Epoch Times is not afraid of violent coercion,” Cheryl Ng, a spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Perhaps the most prominent 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 editing in connection with two protests in 2019. But his legal danger is far from over.
The Apple Daily newsroom was raided by police last year and Mr Lai is charged with charges related to national security law for allegedly calling for US sanctions against Hong Kong. By law, crimes “of a serious nature,” an intentionally ambiguous term, can lead to life imprisonment.
The authorities have not been shy about threatening journalists. They have made their views known on the pages of the state media, on the floor of the local legislature and at the police headquarters.
Hong Kong state newspapers have escalated their criticism of Apple Daily, calling for it to be regulated or even shut down under national security law.
“If Apple Daily is not removed, there will still be a hole in Hong Kong’s national security,” Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper owned by Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office, said in a comment last week.
Ms. Ip, the pro-establishment lawmaker, made it clear to RTHK journalists what she believed their role was. In a legislative session last week, she said a reporter from the outlet should be willing “to be a mouthpiece for the government.”
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang last week warned that publications producing “fake news” could be investigated and called for new laws to regulate the media.
Nonetheless, many reporters say they will not be intimidated by the government’s efforts to suppress their coverage.
“Some have been disappointed,” said Gladys Chiu, the chairman of the RTHK Program Staff Union. “But some feel there is still room to fight for.”