Hong Kong plunges to 148th in world press freedom rankings

Asia’s one-time bastion of free speech has been battered by national security legislation, says media watchdog.

Police officers arriving at the office of Next Media, publisher of Apple Daily, in Hong Kong, China, 17 June 2021.
Since 2020, no less than three media outlets were forced to close by national security investigations or shut their doors voluntarily citing legal risks [File: EPA-EFE/Apple Daily]

Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom in Asia, has plummeted to 148th place in Reporters Without Borders’ annual index on press freedom, a drop of nearly 70 places in a single year.

The sharp descent is the result of new national security legislation imposed in 2020 and the revival of colonial-era anti-sedition laws dating back to the 1930s, the press freedom group said.

Since 2020, no less than three media outlets were forced to close by national security investigations or shut their doors voluntarily citing legal risks according to the media watchdog, while a dozen journalists and media executives have also been detained under the new legislation.

The former British colony ranked 18th place in 2002, the year the index began, but it began to slip down the rankings after crackdowns following democracy protests in 2014 and again in 2019. The Chinese territory now ranks just below the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and slightly above Turkey and India.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that Hong Kong’s press freedom was “as vibrant as ever” citing the large number of regional and international institutions operating in Hong Kong alongside local media.

“This is by itself a very good indication of the vibrancy of press freedom in Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters. “But as I said on many occasions, particularly with the enactment of the National Security Law, journalists, media organisations, are not above the law.”

The broadly-worded law punishes activities deemed subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with up to life in prison.

Tom Grundy, the founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press, said Lam’s metric was not the best way to measure press freedom.

“The quantity of government-registered news outlets is not an indicator of the quality of Hong Kong’s press freedom,” he told Al Jazeera. “Most outlets in Hong Kong are outright owned by Beijing, owned by Chinese conglomerates or owned by those with business interests in China.”

Grundy said Hong Kong’s dwindling press freedom was “undeniable”.

Here is a look at some key recent events:

June 2020: Beijing imposes national security legislation to tackle “separatism” and “foreign interference.”

August 2020: More than 100 officers raid the offices of the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily and also arrest owner Jimmy Lai and five senior executives. Lai, who was released on bail more than 40 hours after his arrest, is accused of “colluding with foreign forces”.

The same month, foreign journalists report that routine visas are now being scrutinised more closely by the immigration department.

September 2020: Hong Kong police arrest 15 executives at Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, for fraud.

November 2020: Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) journalist Bao Choy is arrested for making “false statements” as part of an investigation into a violent 2019 protest.

The same month, radio journalist Wan Yiu-sing, as well as his wife and assistant, are arrested under the national security law and accused of “inciting and funding secessionist activities”.

December 2020: Lai and two other Apple Daily executives are arrested again for fraud. Lai is denied bail.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily, walks to a prison van to head to court.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily, walks to a prison van to head to court, after being charged under the national security law, in Hong Kong, on December 12, 2020 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

April 2021: Hong Kong’s then-police commissioner Chris Tsang warns of the dangers of “fake news” being spread by foreign agents and disinformation campaigns.

March 2021: Hong Kong’s company registry restricts information available for search by the public. The registry was a popular tool for journalists to track hidden wealth and investment in Hong Kong.

February 2021: RTHK undergoes a change in management, which leads the public service broadcaster to cancel a number of popular programmes and axe staff critical of the government.

June 2021: Hundreds of Hong Kong police raid Apple Daily offices for a second time, and seven journalists and executives are arrested under national security legislation. A few days later, the publication announces that it will close its doors in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's Apple Daily was forced to close in June after authorities froze its assets and arrested staff
Apple Daily was forced to close after authorities froze its assets and arrested staff [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

October 2021: Amnesty International announces it will close its local and regional offices in Hong Kong by the end of the year, citing legal fears.

November 2021: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong is warned that its annual survey on press freedom could violate national security laws.

December 2021: Lai is sentenced to 13 months for incitement to participate in a vigil commemorating Tiananmen Square. Later that month, Lai and several Apple Daily journalists are charged with “conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications”.

In December, Hong Kong police also raid the offices of Stand News, an independent pro-democracy news outlet. Top staff are arrested for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”. Stand News says it will close.

Stand News chief editor Patrick Lam escorted by police in Hong Kong
Stand News acting chief editor Patrick Lam, one of six arrested for ‘conspiracy to publish seditious publication’ according to Hong Kong’s police, is escorted by police as they leave after the police searched his office, December 29, 2021 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The government tells The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times they may be guilty of incitement for publishing editorials about low turnout at the city’s first “patriots only” election.

January 2022: Citizen News, another independent news outlet, announces it will shut down, citing legal concerns and fears for staff safety.

April 2022: Veteran journalist Allan Au, a columnist for Stand News, is arrested under Hong Kong’s sedition laws.

Also in April, the Hong Kong Journalists Association says it may disband, citing fears of prosecution, while the Foreign Correspondents’ Club suspends its annual Human Rights Press Awards after judges choose Stand News among its winners.

May 2022: Arizona State University announces that it will host the Human Rights Press Awards in future.

Source: Al Jazeera