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Hong Kong’s journalists are being targeted, their offices raided and their work censored or shut down. While some reporters have self-exiled, those who remain ask: Who could be arrested next? By Sashka Koloff.

Inside the fall of Hong Kong’s free press

RTHK journalist Bao Choy outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court in April.
Credit: Pak Yiu / Reuters

In early May, a journalist for the financial pages of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy tabloid,  Apple Daily, was invited for tea with an old friend. The invitation came as a surprise – the journalist, who we will call Alan, hadn’t seen his friend in 10 years – but it wasn’t a date he could refuse. Alan’s friend was a senior member of the central government of Hong Kong and he had a warning for Alan: quit your job at Apple Daily and stop writing. “I consider you a friend,” Alan recalls him saying, “and I want you to be okay.”

Alan didn’t stop writing. A few weeks later, on June 17, about 500 police officers raided the Apple Daily headquarters, arresting five senior members of staff, including chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, editor-in-chief Ryan Law and editorial writer Yeung Ching-kee. All were charged under Hong Kong’s year-old national security law, accused of conspiring to collude with foreign powers. The charges, which carry a maximum life sentence, related to a series of articles and opinion pieces published by Apple Daily, which included calls for sanctions to be imposed on Hong Kong and China.

Six days after the raid, the newspaper printed its final edition. Apple Daily’s parent company, Next Digital, was out of business. The government froze its bank accounts and seized its financial assets. Its website was taken down and its online archive removed. More than 1000 staff lost their jobs, including 600 journalists. Alan was one of them. After 15 years with the paper, he left Hong Kong almost immediately following his colleagues’ arrest, worried he could be next. He self-exiled to Britain. “The whole industry, every journalist and editor, is now worried,” he says, “because the national security law is so vague that no one can really tell what they can and can’t write and what might be the consequences of their journalism.”

While the speed at which the newspaper was dismantled was shocking, The Saturday Paper has spoken to several former Apple Daily journalists who say they had been preparing for months beforehand. In August last year, owner Jimmy Lai, a fierce critic of Beijing, was arrested for his participation in pro-democracy protests. Soon after, journalists at the paper began to delete the phone numbers of sources and erase interview notes and other sensitive data from their computers. Lai is currently serving a 20-month sentence, after being found guilty of organising and taking part in illegal demonstrations. Recently, he was slapped with new charges under the national security law and stands accused of collusion with foreign powers. If found guilty, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Before its closure, Apple Daily was by far the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong. It was a voice critical of government in a media environment saturated by pro-Beijing propaganda outlets. As China tightened its grip, buying the Apple Daily became a way ordinary people could show defiance of their communist rulers, says Louisa Lim, a Melbourne-based academic who previously worked as a journalist in China. “It’s a full-scale assault across civil society in all its manifestations,” she says. “A free press is part of that free flow of information which is essential to civil society and that is what’s under attack.”

Once regarded as a haven for journalists in the region, Hong Kong’s few remaining independent news media outlets now face a difficult and uncertain future. Some, such as Stand News, are removing opinion pieces from their websites as protection. Investigative journalist Bao Choy, who was arrested last year after publishing a report that alleged police misconduct, says the ambiguity of what now constitutes unlawful reporting is having a chilling effect on journalism in Hong Kong. “You used to be able to guess where the red line was for your reporting; but now we don’t talk about a red line, we talk about a red sea,” she says. “The whole area is now red. So you never know which step will be the dangerous one. The boundary is not clear.”

Well before the national security law was introduced, doing good journalism had become more difficult as people grew ever more fearful of the consequences of talking to the media. Steve Vines, a veteran British journalist and former television presenter with Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK, noticed the shift. “There had been a gradual process of people refusing to appear on our program,” he says. “Some of them citing me as being an unpleasant person to be interviewed by, but some of them just declining. Now, that certainly predated the introduction of the national security law, but after it was introduced, it was a whole different ballgame.”

One foreign correspondent based in Hong Kong told The Saturday Paper that trusted sources have begun asking him not to call anymore and to erase their numbers. The worry is that even talking to international press could be seen as colluding with foreign nations. Nevertheless, major international news outlets are maintaining a presence in Hong Kong.

RTHK, the once-independent public broadcaster, is also showing the changes. Recently, it has begun to transform under the new management of Patrick Li, who was formerly the deputy secretary for home affairs. Appointed as RTHK’s director of broadcasting in March, Li immediately announced an editorial overhaul. According to Steve Vines, the change was rapid. “I was seeing colleagues from RTHK literally disappeared by the day. They either quit, or they were fired, or their program was shut down. When I say by the day, that’s not a metaphor. That’s literally what was happening.”

Vines decided to leave the broadcaster in June. Since then, both the programs he worked on have been axed. Two former RTHK staff members describe a new system of censorship and editorial control under Li, telling The Saturday Paper that civil servants with government ties have replaced senior editorial staff. Reporters and producers are now required to submit story proposals with the names of people they wish to interview to Patrick Li’s office for prior approval. They say they are often asked to interview people from the pro-establishment camp and on occasion have been provided with a list of pre-approved names.

Steve Vines says his producers faced similar pressures. “You had to tell them every piece of film that was going to be made, who was going to be interviewed, how the interview was being conducted, in what context,” he says. “Then before the program got to air, and often this was minutes beforehand, they would … say, ‘You can’t run this, we can’t run that.’ ”

RTHK staff have also told The Saturday Paper that their proposals for stories to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre were rejected this year, without explanation. RTHK refused requests for interview but in a statement confirmed that it had established a “new editorial management mechanism” so senior management “could more proactively participate in and guide the production”.

In August, the broadcaster announced a new partnership with the state-run China Media Group to provide content aimed at building a “thorough understanding” of the Chinese Communist Party and a “stronger sense of patriotism” in Hong Kong.

At least 20 former Apple Daily staff have left Hong Kong since the newspaper closed down, many more from media outlets including RTHK have also decided to get out. Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, concedes this will take a toll. “The reality is that the media is undoubtedly diminished. Those who have left are mostly quite experienced, so this is not good for journalism in Hong Kong,” he says. “I’m not very optimistic with the situation. But we still need true news and facts. So we have to try to keep on going. But we can’t enjoy the freedom of press as we did before.”

A central question for the journalists who remain is: Who could be arrested next? In an ominous sign, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Chris Tang, told a pro-Beijing newspaper last month that the journalists’ association was infiltrating university campuses to “rope in” students, and demanded it release a list of its members.

Chan rejects the claims as “factually wrong” but is prepared for what might come. “I have some preparation in my mind that maybe the police will come to my door, but it’s alright for me … Hong Kong people still need news and Hong Kong people still need journalists.” 

Research on this article was done by Marie Bröckling, a postgraduate researcher with Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "The red sea".

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Sashka Koloff is an Asia reporting fellow for the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.