Guilty verdict for Hong Kong journalist when media faces ‘frontal assault’

HONG KONG – The Hong Kong police chief warned journalists that they could be investigated for reporting “fake news”. A Chinese government-controlled newspaper called for a ban on the city’s largest pro-democracy news outlet. Masked men ransacked the offices of a publication critical of the Communist Party of China and destroyed their printers.

Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom in Asia, home to much more aggressive and independent journalism than that found in mainland China, has been under constant pressure for years. Now, as Beijing moves to crack down on dissent in the city, the media is under direct attack. Traditional pressure tactics, such as advertising boycotts, have been eclipsed by the kind of relentless campaign that could leave prominent journalists silenced and their vehicles transformed or closed.

Recent targets include the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, whose founder was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week, and RTHK, a public broadcaster known for its in-depth investigations. On Thursday, one of the chain’s award-winning producers, Choy Yuk-ling, was found guilty of making false statements to obtain public records of a report that criticized the police. She was ordered to pay a fine of 6,000 Hong Kong dollars, about $ 775.

“It looks like we doubled a situation quite recently,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Center for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong. “Self-censorship is still an issue and we don’t know where the red lines are, but now we see what appears to be yet another frontal attack on the media in Hong Kong.”

Beijing has long wanted to put Hong Kong in the background. The city, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory since the British returned their former colony in 1997, has played by its own set of rules. Residents enjoyed invisible freedoms on the continent, including unrestricted access to the internet, the right to protest and the independent press.

But after major demonstrations in 2019 convulsed the city and sometimes became violent, China’s central government took advantage of the unrest to crack down. He imposed a tough national security law last year, criminalizing many forms of anti-government discourse. He then made changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, increasing control of pro-Beijing power.

Pro-democracy legislators were removed from office. The protest movement was silenced. Activists were arrested. And journalists found themselves in the government’s sights.

On Thursday, a Hong Kong court found that Choy, an autonomous producer, broke the law by using a public database of license plate records as part of an investigation into a July 2019 mafia attack on a train station, in which 45 people were injured. Activists accused the police of turning a blind eye to the violence.

The journalist, who also goes by the name of Bao Choy, helped produce refined documentaries for RTHK that examined who was behind the attacks and why the police were slow to respond. She was arrested in November and accused of making false statements about why she used the publicly accessible database.

Ms. Choy said her case shows how officials are trying to crack down on the media and restrict access to information that was previously publicly available.

“I realized, since my arrest, that it is not my individual problem,” she said in an interview. “It is a bigger problem of freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”

Press freedom groups denounced Choy’s arrest and described it as part of a harassment campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists classified the government’s case as an “absurdly disproportionate action that amounts to an attack on press freedom”.

The case against Choy is the latest move against RTHK, Hong Kong’s leading public radio and television network, which for years has provided compelling reports critical of the government. The vehicle’s statute grants it editorial independence, but as a government entity it has little protection from employees who wish to see it under stricter control. Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said last week that the government should consider a complete closure.

A few months after the national security law was passed, the Hong Kong government demanded that the RTHK be more supervised by government-appointed advisers.

The head of RTHK, a veteran reporter and editor, was replaced in February by a public official with no experience in journalism. Under the new leader, Patrick Li, two radio programs known for their lively political commentaries have been suspended.

Episodes of a television program focusing on the city’s electoral reform and two documentary programs were suspended hours before it aired. A program on student activists was canceled after the broadcaster said it did not meet the standards of fairness and impartiality and included an inaccurate description of the national security law.

RTHK journalists said they were warned that their salary could be reduced to cover the costs of censored programs. The station’s journalists are unsure about where the new limits are and how to do their job, current officials and former employees said.

Reporters Without Borders, the media freedom advocacy group, said on Tuesday that the security law posed a threat to journalists and that RTHK was “being subjected to an intimidation campaign developed by the government with the aim of restricting its editorial autonomy “.

The Hong Kong government rejected the claim that RTHK was being targeted and said it was “horrified” by the suggestion that “people in a specific profession should be immune from legal sanctions,” reported RTHK.

International media are also under pressure in Hong Kong. A Financial Times editor was forced to leave the city in 2018, in apparent retaliation for his role in hosting a talk by a pro-independence activist. The New York Times moved several publishers from Hong Kong to Seoul, in part because of problems with obtaining work permits.

The Epoch Times, a newspaper linked to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in mainland China, has dealt with even more blunt attacks. On April 12, four men invaded the newspaper’s print shop, destroying printers and computers. The newspaper said that no one was hurt and that he was able to resume publishing soon after.

“The Epoch Times is not afraid of violent coercion,” said Cheryl Ng, a spokeswoman, in a statement.

Perhaps the most prominent target so far has been Jimmy Lai, the outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party who founded Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week after being convicted of an unauthorized meeting in connection with two protests in 2019. But his legal risk is far from over.

The Apple Daily newsroom was raided by the police last year, and Lai faces charges related to national security law for allegedly calling for US sanctions against Hong Kong. According to the law, “serious” crimes, an intentionally ambiguous term, can be sentenced to life imprisonment.

The authorities were not shy about threatening journalists. They made their opinions known on the pages of the state media, in the plenary of the local legislature and in police stations.

State-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong have increased their criticism of the Apple Daily, calling for it to be regulated or even closed under national security law.

“If the Apple Daily is not removed, there is still a gap in Hong Kong’s national security,” said Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper belonging to the Beijing liaison office in Hong Kong, in a comment last week.

Mrs. Ip, the pro-establishment legislator, made it clear to RTHK journalists what she believed to be their role. At a legislative session last week, she said that a media reporter should be willing to “be a government spokesman”.

Chris Tang, the Hong Kong police commissioner, warned last week that publications that produce “fake news” could be investigated and he called for new laws to help regulate the media.

However, many reporters say they will not be intimidated by the government’s efforts to crack down on their reporting.

“Some are disappointed,” said Gladys Chiu, president of the RTHK Program Employees Union. “But some think there is still space to fight for.”