Hong Kong’s press freedom record is in free fall

900 journalists have lost their jobs while others are languishing in prison under the National Security Law

In the four years since Hong Kong enacted its National Security Law, the country’s press freedom record is in free fall, according to media advocates.

More than 900 journalists have lost their jobs, several media outlets have closed or moved overseas, and some journalists, including pro-democracy Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, are in prison.

“The Chinese and Hong Kong government’s forced closure of Apple Daily and prosecutions of its owner and editors are very chilling, and they exemplify the city’s decline in press and other freedoms,” Maya Wang, the interim China director of Human Rights Watch or HRW, said.

Once a mainstay of press freedom, the city’s media community has faced numerous setbacks since the passage of the 2020 Beijing-backed legislation that cracks down on the media. 

The most egregious example is the trial against Lai, which has lasted more than 90 days with the court currently adjourned until July 24.

Denying charges under the National Security Law, he has been in custody since December 2020. Lai and six former staff at Apple Daily – the media outlet he founded – were first arrested in August of that year.

Assets frozen

Apple Daily was closed in 2020 after authorities froze its assets.

Prosecutors have used more than 150 videos, op-eds, and other articles from Apple Daily in their case against Lai. The elderly publisher faces life in prison if convicted.

But rights organizations and international lawyers say the claims against him and his media outlet are “baseless” and that charges should be dropped.

Hong Kong’s security bureau did not respond to Voice of America’s email requesting comment. Authorities have previously disputed accusations that the trial of Lai is unfair.

The trial of the other former Apple Daily executives has been postponed for more than two years, waiting for Lai’s case to conclude, according to Reporters Without Borders, which is also known as RSF.

Media advocates have called for journalists to be released. Image: File

Along with other rights organizations including HRW and Freedom House, RSF has called for the immediate release of those in custody.

Calling the prosecutions “baseless,” Wang, of HRW, told VOA via email:

[The cases] should also remind the world what Hong Kong has become: a place where people can get life in prison for criticizing the government.

Wang added that Lai, who is 76, might be suffering from ill health, which adds to the urgency of his release.

Aleksandra Bielakowska, the Pacific Asia Bureau advocacy officer at RSF, told VOA it is unclear what will happen in the coming months. But she said:

I estimate that the sentencing will be prolonged until the start of fall.

Bielakowska described Lai’s case as a “sham trial” to prove what Hong Kong can do to silence the press wanting to talk about issues that are not aligned with China.

Unlawful treatment

She noted that earlier in the year, the United Nations raised concerns about the treatment of a witness called to give testimony.

In a letter to Chinese authorities, UN special rapporteur on torture Jill Edwards said:

I am deeply concerned that evidence that is expected to be presented against Jimmy Lai imminently may have been obtained as a result of torture or other unlawful treatment.

She then called for an investigation into the allegations of mistreatment and torture.

Apple Daily was forced to close in Hong Kong. Photo: File

Bielakowska has been observing Lai’s trial. But when she tried to travel to Hong Kong in April for a hearing, her entry was blocked, and she was detained for six hours at the airport before being deported.

Since the National Security Law was rolled out, several media outlets have closed or moved parts of their operations outside of Hong Kong. They include VOA’s sister network Radio Free Asia and The Wall Street Journal. 

Reporters Without Borders stated the environment for the media has prompted many journalists to leave the city.

Bielakowska pointed out that there is an atmosphere of fear for journalists working on the ground, and that independent reporting is already deteriorating significantly in China.

Alongside the Apple Daily case, the law has been used to arrest hundreds of pro-democracy activists. Beijing has dismissed concerns that the National Security Law is affecting press freedom, saying the legislation is needed to maintain stability.

Sanction judges

Yaqiu Wang, of Freedom House, said her organization is advocating for the United States and other governments to impose sanctions against officials involved in the prosecution of Lai and others charged under the National Security Law.

In December, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China in a statement also said the US “should sanction the judges and prosecutors involved in this case.”

Hong Kong ranks 135 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, where 1 shows the best media environment. In 2019, the year before the National Security Law came in, Hong Kong ranked 73.

Siddhi Mahatole is a producer at Voice of America.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.