August 11, 2020

Press Freedom

Hong Kong

China’s New Security Law Undermines Press Freedom in Hong Kong

By Bill Collins, OPC Press Freedom Chair

Hong Kong’s new National Security Law, a draconian rule which was drafted by Beijing and took effect July 1, is grave news for press freedom supporters, in addition to citizens of the former British colony who believe it will be used to permanently alter the laissez-faire nature of life in the island city.

Nearly 400 protesters were arrested by Hong Kong police immediately after the law took effect in a resounding show of force against pro-democracy supporters. This included 10 people charged under the new security law.

The legal community, which is getting its first full look at the new law, has expressed shock at the security statute as “worse than the worst-case scenario,” according to solicitor and freedom advocate Eric Cheung. He said via Facebook it represents the spirit of mainland China’s socialist legal system rather than Hong Kong’s common law system.

These were among the many concerns of Hong Kong journalists presented to Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, just before the law’s implementation.

“We are concerned that the new law will curtail the ability of journalists to report freely about Hong Kong and mainland China, as is our right under Article 27 of the Basic Law,” said the FCC letter.

In mid-June, the HKJA released a survey of 150 members which found:

  • 98% of its members objected to the new National Security Law,
  • 87% believed it would seriously erode press freedom, in addition to the chilling effect it could have on day-to-day reporting.
  • 80% said self-censorship will worsen
  • 13% of journalists polled said they would consider leaving the journalism profession altogether.

Separately, the Hong Kong Journalists Association previously spelled out its opposition to the new law in a letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

“Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of publication are the cornerstones of success for Hong Kong as an international city. They are under the protection of Basic Law,” said the HKJA letter.

“The enactment of the Hong Kong national security law is like having a knife hanging over the heads of Hong Kong people. It will pose a threat, both in substantive and psychological terms, to journalists, worsening the problem of self-censorship and (forcing journalists to conduct) second-guessing of political bottom line.”

Hong Kong advocates have long feared that the law would erode, if not undermine, their longstanding freedoms of speech, assembly and press.

Apparently, these fears have been realized as the new law has wide ranging power to target acts of secession, subversion and collusion with foreign countries that threaten national security.

A new security agency has been formed to enforce the new law. It reports to Beijing and will have the power to transfer suspects to mainland China.

In a statement, the Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) was particularly troubled about several differences between the new national security law and the Hong Kong’s Basic Law, especially the articles that will allow suspects to be extradited for trial in mainland China.

Global critics believe the new law marks an end to freedoms that were supposed to be guaranteed for 50 years when British rule ended in 1997.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the new security law is “an affront to all nations” and that Washington would continue to implement President Trump’s effort to end the territory’s special status.

“The law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the new law a “clear and serious breach” of the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration.

“This grotesque regulation, that is widely open to interpretation, not only gives the Beijing regime a tool to harass and punish journalists in Hong Kong under appearances of legality, but it also allows China to intimidate and threaten news commentators abroad with incarceration, says Cédric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) East Asia bureau head.

Alviani called on democracies “to take immediate action to prevent Beijing from stifling Hong Kong’s press freedom and establishing the ‘new world media order’ it has been pursuing.”

The consensus among Hong Kong observers is that the new law is having a chilling effect on dissent that was originally feared. Social media platforms are noticeably quiet as well as encrypted channels.