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Freedom in tatters

Founded in 1968, Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) has published an annual report on freedom of expression and freedom of the press since 1994. Through the documentation and analysis of the relevant media-related events in the previous year, we strive to take a penetrating look at Hong Kong’s media ecology and changes in the city’s room for freedom, social and political environment. We express our views on press freedom and media development - their present and future. The first section of previous reports had been “Introduction and Recommendation.” We renamed it “Our View” this year.

One day before the writing of “Our View” on May 15, three news stories saw the media themselves were in the news. It is in itself a manifestation of the scene of broken freedom in Hong Kong in the wake of the promulgation of the National Security Law (NSL). With the law in place, “red lines” are everywhere and fear prevails. The media environment has rapidly deteriorated. Freedom in Tatters, the title of this year’s report, is vividly shown on the front and back pages through the work of Zuni, a renowned cartoonist.

Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai was charged with the offences under the NSL last year. Although he remains innocent for those charges, he was convicted of other crimes and is serving a jail sentence. On May 14, the Government invoked the NSL to freeze his assets, including all shares in Next Digital and assets under his three companies in local banks. The group’s Chief Executive Officer Cheung Kim-hung stressed that the operation and finance of the company was unaffected. But the unprecedented move has dealt a big psychological blow to their staff and the whole media sector.

On June 17, five top executives of Next Digital were arrested for allegedly breaching the national security law. More than 500 police and national security officers conducted a raid at the newsroom of Apple Daily. They took away more than 40 computers from reporters, which contained journalist materials. Secretary for Security John Lee ordered the company’s bank accounts be frozen. On June 17, the newspaper’s publisher Cheung Kim-hung and Chief Editor Law Wai-kong were formally charged with colluding with foreign forces under the national security law. With their bank accounts frozen, the company ran into difficulty in their operation. At a meeting on June 21, the group’s board of directors set June 26 as the last day of their operation if a request for the frozen assets be released is rejected. Staff could tender their resignation with immediate effect. On June 23, Police arrested a man, surnamed Yeung, an editorial writer at the newspaper who goes by the pseudonym “Li Ping”. He was also alleged of colluding with foreign forces. Following an emergency meeting of the board, the management of the newspaper decided to stop operation by midnight. The newspaper said in a farewell note to Hong Kong people in its final edition the decision was made after considering staff safety and manpower. HKJA and seven media unions and groups said in a joint statement Hong Kong lost a media organisation, who has the courage to speak up, because of suppression by the regime. More than one million copies of its final edition were printed.

In the wake of the anti-extradition bill protest, the Chinese National People’s Congress imposed the NSL in Hong Kong. Guided by the principle of rule by law in the mainland, a lot of provisions and details of implementation under the law are not in line with the common law system. The power of the judiciary in exercising checks and balances over the power of the national security and prosecution authorities in accordance with the Basic Law, the Bill of Rights and common law system has been neutered. Furthermore,  judicial independence is facing unprecedented political pressure from the official media and pro-Beijing forces. Pressure grew for the courts to “coordinate” with the executive authorities. In March, the NPC approved a resolution on the “improvement” of the election systems in Hong Kong. Under the new system, the political space for the democrats in the legislature in future will be significantly narrowed. The pro-establishment camp will enjoy an overwhelming dominance in the legislature. The strength of the democrats, who won the majority of votes in the 2019 District Council elections, will be further weakened. They will find it more difficult to counter the Government and the pro-establishment camp.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said on a number of occasions that the wrongs of the media should be corrected. The media system, she said, should be “improved.” The Government will study how to handle “fake news.” Police Commissioner Chris Tang has said legislating on “fake news” is a good thing. Both the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions led the campaign for a law on fake news. Given the current legislature is due to finish its extended term later this year, it is unlikely the Government will formally put the issue on the agenda. But whoever becomes the next chief executive looks certain to adopt a list of measures to rein in the media. They include a fake news law, restrictions on access to companies’ information in a government registry and other public data. With no representatives in the future legislature and the voices of the democrats severely suppressed in the society, the dissenting voices in society will fade. The environment for press freedom will further get worse.

Paving the way for regulating the media, Article 9 of the NSL says the Government “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organisations, the media, and the internet.”

HKJA has issued a statement raising fears that media organisations will face more curbs. Moves to strengthen supervision and regulation of the internet will adversely affect the collection of information by journalists. 

Article 43 says, when handling cases concerning offence endangering national security, Police’s national security department may require a person, who is suspected, on reasonable grounds, of having in possession information or material relevant to investigation, to answer questions and furnish such information or produce such material. We worry news materials will no longer be protected as they have been under the existing laws. Mrs Lam’s remarks on media regulation and fake news are part of the moves to implement the NSL. The process of rectification of the media has already begun.

Although the process is still at its early stage, some media outlets have already been targeted by the authorities and pro-establishment forces in the past 12 months. Due to the Jimmy Lai and the Apple Daily factors, Next Digital has emerged as the Number One enemy of the authorities. This is not surprising.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) is a public service broadcast government department. Some programmes such as the TV satire Headliner has been a long-time target of attack by pro-Beijing figures. But taken as a whole, RTHK programmes won fame for their high-quality production. They received more praises than curses from the populace. Even before the 1997 handover, pro-Beijing figures had already voiced out their discontent with RTHK, saying the broadcaster was impartial. Though confronted with continued pressure, RTHK has largely been able to maintain editorial autonomy and play the role of “people’s broadcasters.”

The past year saw RTHK being devastated by a “supertyphoon”. As this report went to the press, the storm is not yet over. RTHK has received a huge number of complaints lodged to the Communications Authority against some of their episodes relating to the 2019 social movement. They include an episode of satire programme Headliner, which has allegedly denigrated the Police. An episode of a commentary programme, Pentaprism II, which featured remarks by a Polytechnic University academic on the Police-protester clash at the university in 2019. The Authority found complaints against the two programmes established. The RTHK-bashing campaign saw a familiar pattern starting with criticism by pro-Beijing media, political parties and patriotic organisations, followed by the official investigation by the Authority and relevant ruling. Although public views of some programmes being complained about are divided, the Government has endorsed all rulings made by the Authority and adopted follow-up actions.

In the name of reviewing the governance and management of RTHK, Mrs Lam started paving the way for a major surgery of the broadcaster by setting up a team led by a former senior government official. The goal is to get rid of politically sensitive, “incorrect” content from their programmes and “disobedient” editorial staff. The review report was published at the end of February. On the same day, the Government announced the early departure of Leung Ka-wing from the post of Director of Broadcasting. Leung was replaced by Patrick Li Pak-chuen, a senior administrative officer. As soon as Li took office in March, he decided to pull out some programmes, reshuffle production teams, set up an editorial board and micro-inspect programme content. The management decided not to renew the contract of Nabela Qoser, who has been vehemently attacked by the pro-Beijing circle for her reporting style. 

While diluting political content, the new management has increased government propaganda. One of the major initiatives is a series of interviews hosted by Mrs Lam beginning from the end of April about the new election system. The series has a total of 40 episodes, with two each broadcast four times respectively each day. Media reports said the number of viewership of Mrs Lam’s shows hit a low point. Referring to the low rating, prominent pro-establishment columnist Chris Wat Wing-yin has ridiculed RTHK for succeeding in achieving “zero” target in audienceship - thanks to Mrs Lam. 

Manned by AOs, the new management team has been taking orders from the Chief Executive and the relevant policy bureau for the purpose of gaining full control of the broadcaster. Their moves to axe programmes and replace an existing public affairs programme team with an outside content provider through outsourcing is an insult to their existing outstanding team. Some felt disappointed and decided to quit. Bad money drives out good. The Government has acted contrary to common sense, leading RTHK towards the path of demise. It is utterly incomprehensible.

The political shock Next Digital and RTHK faced in the past year is partly due to their own historical background. But more important, their plight reflects the big picture of increased curbs on the media in times of big change in Hong Kong. With the city ushering a new era of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” and Beijing asserting full jurisdictions, a national security law and a set of new election systems are now in place. Under the new governance mode, the media that Beijing and the pro-establishment camp reckoned as “too free” needed to be regulated through an overhaul of the media system. Next Digital and RTHK are the first blood. The crackdown and regulating of other media outlets by the authorities through various means have begun. It will become more apparent.

HKJA has also been a target of bad publicity in the past two years. We have been accused of issuing press cards excessively; we have been branded as a political organisation. There were calls for a ban on HKJA made by anonymous netizens on social media and some pro-Beijing newspaper columns. Those accusations lack evidence. But we observed a marked change of attitude of the Government towards us from the way they handled the Police’s amendment of the definition of “media representatives” in the Police General Orders and the issue of media access to public data. We have made requests to meet with the relevant department and bureaus to express our concern. With the exception of the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau, officials turned a deaf ear to our demand for a meeting. We reiterated our wish to meet with officials to exchange ideas, resolve differences and find solutions.

In our 2020 annual report, we wrote: “We are convinced freedom is inseparable from Hong Kong’s success in the past. It is only with free speech, free press and free flow of information that we have a robust economy, unlimited creativity, advanced innovation and technology and a lively cultural life. We hope the Government will adopt concrete actions to rebuild a free environment for the city to shine again.”

We repeated what we said last year. This is because freedom is in tatters. Hong Kong people are not free from fear. Media faces unprecedented shock. The room for press freedom is shrinking. The risk journalists facing amid the NSL and the imminent fake news legislation is growing. Self-censorship, both direct or indirect, looks certain to increase. There will be fewer truth, true words the public can get from the media.

We hope freedom and diversity will be back again. We hope those with power will stop suppressing people. We hope the Government and people will join hands to kick out fear. 

Below are what we urge.

The Chinese National People’s Congress should review the implementation of the NSL taking into account the change of circumstances and the anxieties of Hong Kong people. The NPC should study amendments and supplementary provisions, in particular making public interest as a defence for journalists. That will safeguard press freedom.
The Government should allow media access to public data as they had been before. Doing so will help journalists get information for reporting activities and thus be able to play their role of monitoring in society.

The Government should shelve studies on legislation on misinformation. To beat misinformation, the Government should do so by other means including education and publicity, which could help enhance public understanding about misinformation for them to exercise self-monitoring.

Police should revoke the amendment of the definition of “media representatives” in the Police General Orders and genuinely facilitate the reporting of journalists.
The Government should speed up the enactment of an archives law and a freedom of information law that are effective in enhancing public access to information and archives.
The Government should stop putting pressure on RTHK and respect its editorial autonomy.

This is the full text of the section, Our View, in the 2021 Annual Report published by the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Chris Yeung is the annual report’s Chief Editor and Chairman of HKJA (2017-2021).