Questions remain about the future of press freedom in Hong Kong as the city’s last pro-democracy newspaper disappears.
The publisher of Apple Daily said the paper could not continue because founder Jimmy Lai was jailed, five executives were arrested under national security laws and its financial accounts were frozen.
The closure of the paper led to international condemnation, including from U.S. President Joe Biden, who said Thursday that “Beijing must stop cracking down on independent media.”
But with millions of copies of the last Apple Daily sold out, media analysts say the disappearance of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper will affect the press and how journalists cover some issues.
By Sunday, the impact already appeared to be spreading, with news site Standpoint News announcing it would temporarily remove some commentary and opinion pieces from its site.
Meanwhile, Apple Daily editorial writer Fung Wai-kwong, 57, was arrested at the airport Sunday night on suspicion of foreign collusion against national security, according to the South China Morning Post and the online news outlet Citizen News.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said it is the responsibility of journalists not to violate national security laws. She denied that the closure of Apple Daily was an attack on the media.
“We are not dealing with either a news media issue or a news reporting issue. This is a questionable act that endangers national security.” Mrs. Lam said at a press briefing last week.
Eric Wishart is co-convenor of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s Committee on Freedom of the Press in Hong Kong and a journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. He said, “The big question is, when do you cross that line?”
He told the Voice of America that “Would it be illegal to comment on articles? Is it illegal [to] quote people outside of Hong Kong? That’s a big question for journalists.”
Andrew Bowner, managing partner of Hong Kong law firm HalDayes, which represents international media, said foreign media continue to report freely, including criticism of Hong Kong and the Chinese government.
Bowner said by email, “It appears that the international media should not be offending (national security laws) by simply quoting Western critics or advocates of sanctions, provided the content of the article does not attempt to incite others to commit crimes under (national security laws). This falls under internationally accepted guidelines for balanced reporting.” .
Bowner said the “red lines” will not be known in detail until the first judicial interpretation of the security law is reached. He added that the charges and evidence that led to the arrest of the Apple Daily executives have not been made public.
The lawyer said the law guarantees freedom of the press, and authorities said the arrests were “exceptional”
An adviser to Apple Daily founder Lai Chi-ying said the Hong Kong Security Bureau claimed 30 articles from the newspaper violated national security laws, but did not tell the publisher what those articles were.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong Security Bureau told VOA earlier this week that it would not comment on the ongoing legal process, but that “endangering national security is a very serious crime.
Two Hong Kong lawmakers told VOA that the law is important. Eunice Yung (D-N.Y.) said there are no exemptions to the bill, adding that the executives were justified in their arrests and that “if they violated national security laws, they need to suffer the legal consequences.” .
Yung Haynes said the Apple Daily case has nothing to do with press freedom, but acknowledged it’s hard to draw the line.
“If you’re just criticizing the law, or commenting on how strong the law is, or what the law should include, or what it should exempt, I think that’s permissible and perfectly reasonable,” she said. But, “If you’re asking foreign countries to sanction Hong Kong officials, that’s a different matter.”
Legislator Holden Chow (D-CA) took a similar view, saying that Hong Kong will continue to enjoy freedom “as long as they don’t go beyond the law.”
Speaking to Voice of America in May, Hong Kong University journalism professor Rickard said it was “disturbing” that media critical of the government were being targeted in the city. “Apple Daily and Standpoint News are likely to bear the brunt of it.” Standpoint News was founded in 2014 and describes itself as a pro-democracy news site.
Several journalists were injured during the 2019 protests, including Gwyneth Ho, a rights activist who is a journalist. She was one of 47 people charged with subversion under the National Security Law in February.
Chen Longsheng, the site’s deputy managing editor, told Voice of America last week that “after Apple Daily shut down, half of the people in Hong Kong said Standpoint News would be the next target.”
“I haven’t heard a very clear message that we might be searched or that our staff will be arrested. From my understanding of the law and police action, I don’t think we have a problem with our journalism.” He added that Standpoint News’ editorial policy adheres to “mindset” and “principles.”
The news site made similar comments Sunday, when it announced through its website that it was temporarily removing comments, opinion pieces, blogs and reader submissions. The site said news articles and videos would not be affected.
Standpoint News said six of the site’s directors had resigned and that the site “continues to operate, with policies and editorial work remaining unchanged.”
Chan Lung-sang told the Voice of America Sunday that the site is not under pressure from the government, saying “we do all the metrics ourselves.”
Hong Kong’s only public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), has also come under scrutiny in recent months, with a new broadcast director axing popular programs, firing reporters and giving Carrie Lam TV clips of her for alleged bias that critics have criticized as propaganda.
Mark Simon, an associate at Apple Daily’s parent company Next Media, said the crackdown on the media will have “lasting effects.”
Simon told Voice of America earlier this week, “You can’t have political prisoners, you can’t shut down the media, you can’t confiscate private property, and at the same time be an international financial center, it’s not possible.” .
Hong Kong, which calls itself “Asia’s world city,” has long enjoyed a reputation as a global financial center.
But that reputation took a hit with the presence of protesters, tear gas and riot police during the 2019 protests. Coupled with last year’s national security laws, international businesses are considering their options.
Political analyst Joseph Chan cites a recent survey that shows how changes in the region are affecting Hong Kong’s international standing.
The survey of its members, conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, a leading business organization, showed that 42 percent said they were considering leaving. Of the 300 members who responded, their most common concern was national security laws.
Clearly, many multinational companies in Hong Kong are considering downsizing their operations and expanding their presence in other Asian cities, such as Singapore and Tokyo,” Joseph Chan said. I think these trends will hurt Hong Kong’s economy for the foreseeable future.”
The security law has certainly affected Apple Daily. The newspaper closed after 26 years of publication, and two of its five executives were denied bail. A court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 13.