Hundreds of uniformed police make an early morning raid on the offices of a major city newspaper. The chairman of the newspaper is marched, handcuffed, by police through the newsroom. They are scenes that would be shocking even in a third world dictatorship. But in Hong Kong, a city previously considered to enjoy among the most robust press freedoms in Asia, the events of this week marked a new low point in the city’s dizzying fall from grace.
Jimmy Lai, chairman of Next Digital Limited, the publisher of the city’s most outspoken pro-democracy newspaper the Apple Daily, was arrested on Monday, together with several of his key executives, under the auspices of a new national security law, on suspicion of colluding with foreign powers. (Lai and his associates have subsequently been released on bail.)
Hong Kong police claimed that officers were “mindful of avoiding journalistic materials” in their search, a claim directly contradicted by livestream footage of police wandering around the newsroom rifling through journalists’ desks. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong called the events “a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom”.
These latest developments are just part of a broader crackdown on Hong Kong’s free press, coming at a time when the new national security law, introduced on 30 June, raises broader fears about freedoms in the city. At a press conference in July, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam was asked if she could guarantee that journalists would be free to continue their reporting activities under the new law, she replied that if “all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 per cent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same”.
This rapidly deteriorating environment threatens both local journalists and the operations of the many international media organisations which have made the city their regional base. After meeting with an extensive media presence at the front lines of protests over the past year, Hong Kong police has been pushing for a formal accreditation system for journalists. But in the face of strong opposition from groups including the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which fear obstruction to the media’s work, the police force has failed to convince the government, and appears to have taken matters into its own hands, refusing reporting access to certain media outlets and effectively instituting their own ad hoc accreditation system.
During the raids on Apple Daily and subsequent press conference, police denied access to reporters from several media outlets, with one journalist reportedly being told by police “only those who’ve not been obstructing police in the past are invited”. As well as local independent media outlets, international agencies were also excluded. Police commissioner Chris Tang later confirmed in an interview that only “trusted” media were permitted to report at the site.
Foreign media outlets have found visa applications or renewals for journalists delayed by Hong Kong authorities without explanation, developments the Foreign Correspondents’ Club called “highly unusual”. Hong Kong recently refused to renew the work permit for Chris Buckley, a veteran New York Times reporter who had previously been forced to leave Beijing during a series of tit-for-tat journalist expulsions between China and the US. No explanation was offered for the refusal. It subsequently emerged that a new unit was established within the Hong Kong Immigration Department to review journalist visas at around the time the national security law came into force, and is placing foreign media visa applications under heightened scrutiny.
These new risks and uncertainties are leading many international media outlets to reconsider their presence in the city. The New York Times recently announced that it would move its Asia digital operations — one-third of the current Hong Kong staff — to Seoul. “China’s sweeping new national security law in Hong Kong has created a lot of uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism,” said the Times in a memo to staff. “We feel it is prudent to make contingency plans and begin to diversify our editing staff around the region.”
Local news media have also come under increasing pressure. In the past week the news directors of two reputable local broadcasters — iCable and Now TV — were replaced, while major public broadcaster RTHK is under an ongoing government probe. The broadcaster has been widely praised for its objective reporting but, like so many public broadcasters around the world, its critical coverage has been a source of government ire. A long-running satirical comedy skit program aired by the broadcaster which had lampooned government and police figures was axed in June.
But any declarations of the death of Hong Kong’s free press would be premature. In the wake of this week’s arrests and police raid, the community has rallied around Lai and his Apple Daily. When the paper printed a special run of over 500,000 copies (up from 100,000) the day after Lai’s arrest, the entire run sold out, with many supporters buying multiple copies and handing them out gratis.
Meanwhile, stock of Lai’s Next Digital Limited soared over 1,000% on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange during the week, as Hong Kongers “voted” with their wallets. Readers of the paper even took out adverts, using the space to state their support.
The New York Times has also continued to make use of Hong Kong’s open information environment, this week publishing an exposé of the family wealth of Beijing’s elite leadership, much of it sourced by investigative work carried out in Hong Kong.
The message, at least as far as Lai’s Next Digital is concerned, is clear: “We shall fight on.”
Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer, and the author of “City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong”, published by Scribe.