Hong Kong is unrecognizable after 2 years under national security law – The Diplomat
On June 10, FactWire announced its closure with immediate effect, becoming the tenth Hong Kong news agency to close in less than 12 months. FactWire had used an innovative crowdfunding model to produce Chinese-language investigative journalism, exemplifying the kind of award-winning independent media that once thrived in the territory. But just as many feared when Beijing imposed the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, the free expression landscape in Hong Kong is now increasingly desolate.
Under the NSL, Hong Kong’s total score in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, fell 12 points, from 55 to 43, on a scale of 0 to 100. The score has decreased by nine points. in 2021 alone, marking the third-worst global decline of the year after Myanmar and Afghanistan, which respectively experienced a military coup and a Taliban conquest. This is particularly important given that most countries and territories where freedoms are deteriorating only see their scores drop by a point or two in any given year.
The security law served as a crucial tool in Beijing’s devastating authoritarian takeover of Hong Kong, enabling the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to bring about a free and vibrant society.
Here are some of the five most significant changes to free speech under the NSL:
1. Demolition of independent media
Since the NSL’s introduction, authorities have crushed major pro-democracy outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News, which closed after police raided their offices and arrested staff on national security grounds. Police visited another outlet in May and asked the founder to remove items believed to endanger national security. In the past 12 months, seven other Chinese-language media outlets have shut down and two have limited their operations, although some small outlets or individual journalists continue to post on social media.
In total, around 20% of Chinese-language media workers in Hong Kong have lost their jobs in the national security crackdown. English-language outlets like Hong Kong Free Press and the South China Morning Post, which is owned by mainland Alibaba, still produce independent content but could be targets of future crackdown efforts.
2. Journalists added to a growing list of Political prisoners
At least 12 journalists and media professionals have been charged with NSL or crimes of sedition for their work, including Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai and senior Stand News executives. Lai’s trial is expected to take place this summer.
The NSL’s ‘collusion with foreign forces’ charge, which was applied to journalists who published opinion pieces calling for international sanctions against those who undermine human rights and political autonomy in Hong Kong, carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Sedition charges, under a colonial-era law enacted in 1938, carry lighter sentences and have been brought against some media workers, likely to allow punishment for actions that took place before the entry into force of the NSL. A media professional was convicted and sentenced in April to 40 months in prison for sedition and other charges unrelated to his media work.
These cases led the Committee to Protect Journalists to include Hong Kong journalists in its annual global census of imprisoned reporters for the first time. They have also contributed to the growing number of prisoners of conscience in the territory: at least 183 people have been arrested for crimes related to national security since June 2020, and there are more than 1,000 political prisoners in total, including those convicted of protest-related crimes. Activities. Faced with such repression, many Hong Kongers fled into exile. Some journalists and activists have established diaspora media outlets like Flow HK, Commons and The Chaser to cover Hong Kong news and serve the burgeoning exile community.
3. Growth of continental-style state media
As independent media are the target of police crackdowns, the government has moved to convert the once-respected public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) into the mouthpiece of the government. RTHK no longer has editorial independence and its staff can be held financially responsible for producing programs that are then censored. RTHK removed much of its pre-NSL content from the internet, depriving millions of residents of access to historical records. In August 2021, the station partnered with Beijing’s China Media Group to air programming that would “convey a stronger sense of patriotism.”
Two newspapers directly owned by the Chinese state – Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po – are increasingly playing a role similar to state media on the mainland, issuing denunciations that could signal future police crackdowns. In September 2020, a senior Hong Kong official hailed Ta Kung Pao as a “golden microphone for the central government”. On June 13, the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the CCP, published a front-page letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulating Ta Kung Pao on his 120th birthday and for his “contribution to maintaining Hong Kong’s stability.” Kong”.
4. Internet censorship and surveillance
Hong Kongers enjoyed a relatively free and open internet before the introduction of the NSL, but internet censorship has become increasingly common. To date, eight websites have been blocked in Hong Kong. While this is still a far cry from conditions on the mainland, where the Great Firewall blocks thousands of websites, it represents a significant change.
In May, pro-government lawmakers called on the Hong Kong government to consider blocking access to the Telegram messaging platform under revised October 2021 legislation relating to doxing – the unauthorized disclosure of personal information. on line. While Telegram is still accessible in Hong Kong, the company recently shut down three channels for alleged doxing in response to requests from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. The law allows the commissioner to arrest users, order the takedown of online content, block websites, and arrest local employees of foreign technology companies if their companies fail to comply with takedown requests. carrying a potential sentence of two years in prison. So far, authorities have used the law to arrest at least six people and delete thousands of posts on 14 platforms.
Even watching a documentary about pro-democracy protests on streaming platforms can be an NSL offense, and authorities are expanding their ability to monitor online activity. On March 1, a law requiring residents to register their SIM cards under their real name came into effect, replicating a system used on the mainland to monitor and arrest internet users. Within a month, 1.4 million cards were linked to real names.
5. Attempt to erase the collective memory of Tiananmen
In another shift to mainland conditions, authorities have sought to erase Hong Kongers’ collective memory of the 1989 massacre of protesters in and around Tiananmen Square, the anniversary of which is marked on June 4. The long-running annual vigil in Victoria Park has been banned since the NSL came into force and the area is now heavily policed, with six people arrested on this year’s sensitive date. Police also arrested four people for spray-painting the numbers “six” (for June) and “four” in the city. In January, an activist was sentenced to 15 months in prison for writing a Facebook post calling on residents to light a candle for the anniversary of June 4, 2021. Beijing has sent letters to consulates of foreign democracies in Hong Kong to complain about their online access. memorials on the occasion of the anniversary. Authorities also removed memorial statues at universities and blocked RTHK from reporting on the subject. Despite the closed space, some Hong Kongers marked the recent anniversary with small gestures of protest.
On July 1, former police officer and security official John Lee will become Hong Kong’s fifth chief executive. Lee’s selection, through a process imposed by Beijing, signals that the national security crackdown is not over. With the government already banning the media from covering his inauguration and the 25-year-old handover ceremony, it is clear that Lee will continue to restrict press freedom. In fact, the government has announced several bills that would lead to further restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression.
For example, since May 2021, the government has been working on “fake news” legislation that could lead to more criminal prosecutions of journalists, the closure of outlets and self-censorship. In January 2022, the Secretary of Security announced the government’s intention to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, a long dormant provision that calls for legislation prohibiting treason, secession, sedition, subversion, the theft of state secrets and the activities of foreign political organizations. Charges of “state secrets” are regularly used against journalists on the continent, while academic, artistic and religious expression has already been targeted by the NSL and could face even tougher restrictions under Article 23. On May 25, the government also announced that it was working on a cybersecurity law to address national security threats online.
The Legislative Council has been devoid of pro-democracy opposition members since a massive resignation in 2020 and the imposition of a repressive new electoral system in 2021, meaning any government-backed legislation is likely to pass with little control.
Next month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will review Hong Kong’s compliance with its legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Freedom House submitted a report to the committee on serious violations of press freedom and internet freedom in recent years. It is vital that the committee’s experts publicly and clearly describe how the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have utterly failed to comply with the treaty. In addition to supporting these international accountability mechanisms, democratic governments should provide assistance to those fleeing the territory. The reality is that democracy advocates in Hong Kong have few options outside of jail or exile, and the trend since 2020 suggests that human rights conditions will continue to deteriorate. .