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HK’s largest journalist group fearful over new security law

The law will criminalize treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets, espionage and endangering national security
Protesters hold up copies of Apple Daily as they demonstrate for press freedom in a Hong Kong shopping center in August 2020. The front-page photograph shows the newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, being arrested in the newsroom. The Hong Kong Journalists Association fears a new security law may affect news reporting in the city.

Protesters hold up copies of Apple Daily as they demonstrate for press freedom in a Hong Kong shopping center in August 2020. The front-page photograph shows the newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, being arrested in the newsroom. The Hong Kong Journalists Association fears a new security law may affect news reporting in the city. (Photo: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

Published: February 26, 2024 11:01 AM GMT
Updated: February 26, 2024 11:12 AM GMT

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the city’s largest and oldest press group, said it fears a new domestic security law may affect news reporting and urged the government to protect reporters.

The new security law, also known as Article 23 referring to the provision in the city’s mini-constitution, could have “far-reaching implications” for the press, HKJA said in a submission on Feb. 24, Hong Kong Free Press reported.

The association has also proposed the authorities provide clearer definitions for provisions relating to offenses, including external interference and theft of state secrets.

What constitutes “state secrets” is too broad, the group said.

Journalists receive leaks from government sources from time to time, for example in relation to personnel changes and policy announcements, and it is difficult for the press to determine if the sources are disclosing this information with lawful authority, it added.

Regarding the external interference offense, the definition of "foreign forces" is also too vague, HKJA said, and questioned about whether attending events funded by overseas business chambers or organizations with foreign links could constitute "collaboration with an external force."

Hong Kong’s legislature is without an effective opposition due to recent changes in electoral rules that allow only “patriot” politicians to get elected. The parliament is expected to pass the new security law this year, which is separate from the 2020 national security law imposed by Beijing following the 2019 pro-democracy unrest.

The association made the submission to the Security Bureau amid a month-long public consultation for the security law. The 110-page paper on the legislation seeks to criminalize five types of crime: treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets and espionage, sabotage endangering national security, and external interference, HKFP reported.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee has claimed most people support the law.

The HKJA said the press seeks to serve the public interest and hold authorities accountable and was not a threat to national security.

It said that 90 percent of 105 journalists who took part in the group’s survey believed it would have a significant negative impact on press freedom.

"[HKJA] thinks that when enacting the law, the government should avoid [situations where] journalists find themselves caught up in legal trouble due to their regular news gathering, reporting or commentary work," the group's Chinese-language submission read.

Pro-government Hong Kong Federation of Journalists claimed in response to HKJA's submission that the group did not represent the news industry.

"The HKJA... seriously twisted the facts and attempted to cause confusion and create panic," the group wrote. "They completely fail to represent the views of Hong Kong's media industry."

The concerns raised by HKJA are a rare expression of local dismay about the potential impact of Article 23.

This follows criticism against the security law in a joint statement signed by UK-based advocacy group Hong Kong Watch and activist groups based in the US, UK, and Canada that said the new law would bring “further devastating consequences” for human rights in the city.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government has crushed opposition to the security law ever since it was first floated in 2003, triggering protests joined by an estimated 500,000 people.

The Beijing-imposed national security law led to the arrests of dozens of activists, the collapse of civil society groups, and the shuttering of 10 media outlets including the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper. Over 1,000 journalists have lost their jobs, and many emigrated to other countries.

The law also bans unauthorized mass protests.

The HKJA also recommended that, under the domestic security law, there should be a need to prove that there was "material damage" done to national security.

"The association believes that many offenses are currently defined too broadly, which may result in many cases being prosecuted where there is no real risk or very little risk to national security... causing the severity of charges to far exceed the actual harm of the offenses," the group wrote.

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