Hong Kong’s liberal media are under pressure

Editor’s note (June 23rd 2021): Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy tabloid, confirmed that it would publish its last issue on June 24th.

SINCE CHINA imposed a national-security law on Hong Kong a year ago, restrictions on the city’s media have sharply escalated. The latest clampdown came on June 17th when police arrested Ryan Law (pictured), the chief editor of Apple Daily, an outspoken pro-democracy newspaper. Also seized were the tabloid’s publisher and three other bosses associated with it. They have been accused of violating the new law by conspiring to collude with foreign forces. “We value freedom of the press,” a senior officer said afterwards. Many journalists see no sign of that.

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Following the arrests, hundreds of police raided Apple Daily’s offices. They reportedly searched for journalistic materials, including laptops, notebooks and mobile phones. The government called it a “crime scene”: it says the newspaper’s assets have been frozen. This grim spectacle was little surprise. Apple Daily has long been in the sights of China’s ruling Communist Party. Its owner, Jimmy Lai, is rare among local tycoons for his outspoken criticism of the party. He was arrested last year for his involvement in a prolonged series of anti-government protests in 2019 and could face life in prison under the security law. Chinese state television has called Apple Daily “a platform for incitement” of troublemakers. Many of the newspaper’s staff believe it is a matter of time before it has to close.

Over the past decade, Hong Kong has plummeted from 54th to 80th in the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, a campaign group. It still ranks higher than mainland China, which is fourth from bottom at 177th, just above North Korea. The city also lacks the mainland’s draconian internet controls. But the political climate in Hong Kong has changed dramatically since the central government imposed the security law.

Editors now worry whether the content they handle could be in breach of the new law. Footage of rallies held on June 12th in dozens of countries to mark the second anniversary of the outbreak of the protests went unaired by big broadcasters, says Chris Yeung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. The law’s ripple effect was also evident in the case of Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy politician who was arrested under the new bill in January. In May the High Court denied bail to Ms Mo, saying statements she had made to foreign journalists disqualified her. That sent a signal to reporters that they could get interviewees in trouble by quoting them. “I didn’t become a journalist for my stories to be used in this way,” says a reporter who has recently resigned.

Apple Daily has always prided itself on being provocative. But other, less fiery, media have also been suffering. Take the city’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which long boasted an independent-minded culture inspired by that of the BBC. In February RTHK’s English-language radio station stopped its night-time relay of the BBC World Service. Its Cantonese talk channel ditched a weekly broadcast of an hour-long BBC news programme in that language. This followed China’s decision to ban the airing of BBC shows on its territory because of the British broadcaster’s coverage of abuses in Xinjiang.

It is clear that Hong Kong’s government wants RTHK on a tighter leash. In March it installed Patrick Li, an official with no background in journalism, as director of broadcasting. Since then, several senior editors have resigned, reportedly because of concerns about editorial freedom, and popular programmes that poked at officialdom have been axed. So, too, have television documentaries containing references to the protests in 2019. Their topics included police behaviour during the unrest and mask shortages during the pandemic, as well as subjects far removed from politics: one was about whales, another about hip-hop bands (someone interviewed about the whales had mentioned the protests; one of the bands was anti-government). In May RTHK did not renew the contract of a journalist who is renowned for putting tough questions to politicians. Also that month staff began deleting archived shows from Facebook and YouTube, including investigations about the protests that had garnered millions of views.

The South China Morning Post, the territory’s main English-language newspaper, still has leeway to criticise the party. In 2015 it was bought by Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, which said it wanted to combat alleged anti-China bias in the foreign media. That sparked fears it might become a party mouthpiece. But the Post still often reports on human-rights abuses in China and other politically sensitive topics. Former staff say it is more cautious about subjects the party considers utterly taboo, such as corruption involving serving leaders and their families.

Journalists in Hong Kong wonder how long it will remain possible to publish anything that is highly critical of the party. The central government is reportedly preparing to set up a department in Hong Kong to run “propaganda”. Many reporters fear this could mimic the role of the party’s Publicity Department in Beijing, which is in charge of censorship. In March Xia Baolong, China’s chief of Hong Kong affairs, lamented that in the media and other spheres, “patriots” were not yet fully in charge in the territory. To China, that means people who love the party.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, appears unsympathetic to reporters’ complaints. She says officials are mulling a law against “fake news”, a term they use to describe coverage they dislike. At her press conferences, Mrs Lam increasingly chooses to take questions from China’s state media. In an annual survey of local reporters conducted in May by the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, more than 90% of respondents said press freedom had hit a record low. About 85% of them blamed the city’s own government.

Some media workers are as gloomy about their readers as they are about curbs on freedoms. They say demand for punchy journalism is diminishing as citizens grow disillusioned with politics. “Many of us now wonder, what is the point?” says one reporter. “The Communist Party is going to do what they want to do.”

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “No news is bad news”

The Economist

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