On October 8, two journalists from the Philippines and Russia were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to safeguard freedom of expression, a fundamental right the committee emphasized as “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” in a world threatened by encroaching authoritarianism. One of the most troubling reflections of this trend has taken place in Hong Kong, where the media sector is rapidly becoming unrecognizable under the Beijing-imposed national security law (NSL) that took effect just over a year ago.
In today’s Hong Kong, journalists can face life imprisonment for critical reporting; online content is removed at orders of the police; websites are blocked; and the independent journalism needed to inform the public and hold leaders accountable is being replaced with state propaganda.
Over the past month, Hong Kong authorities have further tightened the screws on the city’s media alongside using the wide-reaching NSL provisions to further restrict academic freedom, civil society organizations, and social services. Having forced the closure of prominent prodemocracy newspaper Apple Daily, authorities are now working to rein in the local journalists union and other independent media. And while several outlets, especially those that operate only online, have pushed back and continue to critically report the news, they operate at great risk and may be the authorities’ next targets.
Criminal Prosecution of Journalists and for Online Content
On September 30, Hong Kong prosecutors moved to have the Apple Daily case moved to the High Court where there are no sentencing caps, meaning a maximum sentence of life imprisonment could be handed down. Six people, including the paper’s editor-in-chief and executives from its parent company, Next Digital, are in custody on charges of “collusion with foreign forces” under the NSL in connection with opinion articles published in the now-closed newspaper calling for sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including those published before the NSL was even enacted.
Separately, in August authorities removed a foundation linked to Apple Daily from the registered charities list and then amended rules for charities’ tax-exempt status the next month so they could delist organizations the government accuses of “supporting, promoting, or engaging in activities disadvantageous to national security.”
In another move, the Legislative Council passed amendments to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance on September 29 that criminalize doxxing, or releasing personal information online, with the offenses punishable by up to five years in prison and a HK$1 million (US$128,000) fine. The law, which took effect October 8, also empowers the Hong Kong privacy commissioner to authorize warrantless investigations and searches in instances of suspected doxxing, to press charges without involvement of the Department of Justice, to order that content be removed from online sites, and to issue such orders to extraterritorial parties.
The law would permit local employees of overseas technology companies to be arrested and jailed for two years if their companies fail to comply with takedown requests. The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and the Hong Kong Law Society, previously submitted their concerns about the amendments and their implications for freedom of expression, which were largely ignored.
Increased Censorship of Media and Online Content
In the past month, other media have increased self-censorship and several civil society groups, once sources of expert analysis and commentary for the media, have been forced by police to remove online content. In early September, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) canceled a popular current affairs show, ending its run of 41 years. RTHK then released new editorial guidelines on September 29 that prohibit its journalists from “providing a platform” for content that endangers national security, which will likely lead to further self-censorship. On September 13, the newspaper Ming Pao ended the column of a Georgetown-based Hong Kong legal scholar.
Two NGOs and an online museum recently had their websites or social media accounts shut down or blocked under the NSL. On September 10, police ordered the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China to remove all content from its website and from its Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube channels. The group, whose senior leadership has been jailed, complied on September 16 and dissolved on September 25. Another group, the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, announced on September 21 that it was disbanding, and shut down its website and social media accounts amid a national security investigation into the group. On September 28, the website for an online museum commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, 8964museum.com, was blocked in the territory, becoming the seventh website taken down in Hong Kong under the National Security Law.
Media and Private Sector Pushback
Beijing’s transformation of Hong Kong, while drastic, remains incomplete and there continues to be some pushback against the authorities’ efforts to suppress freedom of expression online. A recent article from the Columbia Journalism Review described complex business models that the independent digital outlets Stand News, Citizen News, and HK Feature have used to stay in business – including irregular payment schedules, reliance on networks of citizen journalists and students, and disseminating articles as PDFs to avoid online surveillance.
The private sector also has a role in trying to protect information online. In one example of a Western tech company taking action to defend Hong Kongers’ digital rights, on September 13, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that it had banned seven mainland Chinese editors and revoked access to Wikipedia for 12 others over alleged doxxing of Hong Kong–based editors, and other concerns. An earlier report from local outlet Hong Kong Free Press found that some mainland Chinese editors had threatened to report Hong Kongers to the national security hotline amid editing disputes.
In contrast, local media discovered that Google provided user data in three instances to Hong Kong police between July and December 2020, despite a public promise after the enactment of the NSL not to comply with such requests.
As the Nobel Committee noted, “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies, and war propaganda.” Like most authoritarian regimes, the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing recognize the power of the press in reporting the truth of the crackdown and exposing lies officials are telling about the NSL, which is why they are such a target.
Although Hong Kong’s press is still freer than their Beijing counterparts, more must be done to defend freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Democratic countries should issue coordinated sanctions against officials responsible for the media crackdown, U.N. officials should speak loudly in defense of Hong Kongers’ internationally protected right to freedom of expression, and private companies, which have long used the territory as a base to make profits, should dedicate resources to defending Hong Kong’s traditionally free and open internet.