Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong reads the last edition of Apple Daily newspaper in Taichung, central Taiwan, on Aug. 5, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
A government crackdown has almost completely dismantled free media in Hong Kong, paving the way for expansion of state-run, pro-Beijing media in the former British colony, says a new report by UK-based advocacy group Hong Kong Watch.
The report — In the Firing Line: The Crackdown on Media Freedom in Hong Kong — detailed the “dire” condition of press freedom in Hong Kong.
It called on the international community to step up to monitor the situation, speak out against violations of press freedom and freedom of expression and to provide a lifeline to journalists at risk of arrest in the Chinese territory.
The report was launched during an event in the House of Commons in London hosted by lawmaker Catherine West, the shadow minister for Asia, on April 26.
It says that the working environment for local and foreign journalists in Hong Kong has become increasingly difficult as the government uses a series of laws against journalists including the national security law, intimidation and police violence, mass sackings, intervention and censorship of media outlets. Even more threatening is police redefining who is a journalist or not, an upcoming law for so-called fake news and criminalization of traditional research methods.
Following the massive pro-democracy protests since 2019, Hong Kong authorities not only unleashed a heavy crackdown on protesters but also on free media, leading to the closure of Apple Daily, Stand News and others. Public broadcaster RTHK has lost its former editorial independence, spreading fear and an alarming self-censorship across media outlets in the city.
"I was going up an escalator trying to get a top shot, heard a pop and found my safety goggles were sprayed with powder. If I had not been wearing goggles, I would have been shot in the eye"
The report is based on first-hand interviews with over 10 journalists from Hong Kong now in exile and reports by leading Hong Kong and global press freedom organizations.
Matthew Cheung, a former reporter with Hong Kong Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, said in the report that he was shot four times with pepper balls while covering pro-democracy protests from June 2019 to early 2020.
“The first time was in Yuen Long about a week after the July 21 mob attack. I was going up an escalator trying to get a top shot, heard a pop and found my safety goggles were sprayed with powder. If I had not been wearing goggles, I would have been shot in the eye,” he said.
The report details how Hong Kong authorities have curtailed press freedom, ranging from police violence against media workers to police raids on newsrooms, from the closure of independent media outlets to the management shake-up at public broadcaster RTHK, from draconian laws leading to the arrest of reporters and editors to the weaponization of visas for foreign correspondents and restrictions on access to public records.
Hong Kong Watch also pointed out how state-run media continue to spread propaganda against pro-democracy supporters as well as the city’s influential Catholic Church, its leadership and institutions.
"As someone who began my career in 1997 as a young journalist in Hong Kong, I always regarded the freedom of the press in Hong Kong as one of the city’s greatest assets"
For example, pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao published four articles starting from Jan. 27 accusing Cardinal Joseph Zen, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, of abusing his clerical status to engage in anti-China activities.
Stephen Vines, a former presenter at RTHK, wrote the foreword for the report. He says that “this report meticulously documents the way in which media freedom has been destroyed” and argues that “exposing the way in which the Chinese dictatorship behaves when it has the opportunity to destroy freedom serves as a vital reminder to the rest of the world of the dangers posed by the communist regime as it spreads its influence in the international community.”
Hong Kong Watch chief executive and UCA News writer Benedict Rogers, who wrote the report, said the international community must ensure protection of journalists in Hong Kong and hold those accountable who are responsible for dismantling press freedom.
“Press freedom is a fundamental pillar of any free, open society. As someone who began my career in 1997 as a young journalist in Hong Kong, I always regarded the freedom of the press in Hong Kong as one of the city’s greatest assets,” Rogers said.
“Today, it has been almost completely dismantled, as this comprehensive report details, and it is time for the international community to act to ensure that we help brave journalists who continue to take risks to do their jobs in Hong Kong, and to ensure that those responsible for dismantling Hong Kong’s press freedom face consequences and are not allowed to get away with impunity.”