Draconian ‘national security’ law already muzzling Hong Kong’s journalists

Audrey Kim

Summer Research Fellow

erin-song-5cx7nB8hpso-unsplash (1).jpg
Erin Song, Unsplash

Hong Kong police arrested Jimmy Lai, publisher of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and his two sons under collusion charges associated with the country’s controversial new national security law last week. Under the notoriously vague law, China has claimed the jurisdiction to silence essentially anyone that criticizes the Chinese Communist Party or publicly supports the pro-democracy movement. Lai’s arrest confirmed what journalists in Hong Kong feared to be true: the national security law is by no means an idle threat.

Once heralded as a leader of press freedom in the region, Hong Kong now faces a terrifying new reality, in which any political speech is grounds for punishment. This comes as an effort to silence the pro-democracy protests that have swept the city in the past year, and to muzzle the journalists that reported on police violence and government injustices during the protests. In its 66 articles and 700 words, the law uses dangerously broad definitions outlaw “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.” The result sweeps up virtually any speech that is critical of the government. The law raises safety concerns for local and foreign journalists who write anything that could be construed as political.

Since its passage on June 30, the Hong Kong government wasted no time in restricting speech under the threat of the national security law. RTHK, a government-funded public radio station notable for its fearless demands for government accountability, felt the pressure early. Recently, the government cracked down on RTHK’s satirical show called “Headliner” after it ran a segment making fun of the police. After extensive government criticism, the broadcaster apologized and suspended the show. An RTHK executive well-known as a stickler for editorial independence announced her resignation, citing vague health reasons, but urged the staff to comply with the government’s code of conduct during her last address.

As a government-sponsored entity, RTHK could be forced to give up its famous independent streak under the added threat of the national security law. Other news organizations are bracing for the worst, too.

The law is a direct threat to organizations like RTHK and a danger to individual journalists like Lai, but it also creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that pushes even moderate news organizations towards self-censorship. Hong Kong press organizations have tried to get ahead of the law by erasing digital footprints that might indicate government dissent. An editor of the English-language Hong Kong Free Press told The Guardian that some sources have declined to speak out of fear, and some articles will use a general staff byline to protect the identities of journalists.

The national security law also endangers foreign press organizations, including prominent U.S. outlets --- fitting within a long tradition of diplomatic haggling between China and the U.S. over journalist visas and work permits. In recent years, prominent international news organizations started having trouble with obtaining work visas for journalists in Hong Kong — especially those who have spoken in support of pro-democracy efforts. For example, Chris Buckley, a veteran New York Times China correspondent, was denied work permit renewal in July after a long career exposing the injustices of the Chinese government. The national security law codifies the increasing hostility towards foreign press, with Article 38 suggesting that foreigners who support independence for Hong Kong or call for imposing sanctions on the Chinese government could be prosecuted upon entering Hong Kong or mainland China.

In light of mounting visa troubles and the new law, the New York Times officially announced that it will be moving digital news operations to Seoul in light of work visa troubles and the new law. Bloomberg News and CNN said that they are staying put, but there’s no telling what the future holds.

In addition to journalists, Hong Kong residents are on high alert as the national security law looms over the city. The police arrested 370 people the day after the law was signed into action. Of the ten arrested specifically under the new law, one was a teenage girl waving a Hong Kong independence flag. Prominent pro-democracy groups disbanded citing fears of safety. Beijing seems to prefer scaring the city into silence above the preservation of basic civil liberties and press freedom.

The government’s assertion of excessive authority over its citizens and the press, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise. In 2019, protests erupted over an extradition bill that would have allowed China to extend its power over Hong Kong’s legal system, which historically retained some autonomy from Chinese rule under a “one country, two systems” deal. Police have assaulted, arrested, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and shot journalists with rubber bullets during those protests.

Lai is the first, but certainly not last individual to face charges under the new law for serving the public as a member of the press. By arresting the likes of Lai, and more broadly undermining press freedom in Hong Kong, the government attempts to sidestep accountability for its abuses of power. As the consequences of the law unfold, it will become all the more important for journalists and sources to be vigilant in their use of secure communications and utilize anti-surveillance measures.