Beijing’s National Security Law for Hong Kong Poses Threat to City’s Press Freedoms: Rights Groups

June 19, 2020 Updated: June 19, 2020

The future of Hong Kong’s press freedoms is under close scrutiny as Beijing will soon impose a national security law on the Chinese-ruled city.

In a statement on June 19, Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) addressed the risks that journalists reporting in Hong Kong would face once the law is implemented. A day before, local trade group Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said there was overwhelming opposition to the law among its members.

“Such regulation [national security law] would give the Chinese regime the means to harass and punish any journalist they dislike in Hong Kong with the appearance of legality,” said Cédric Alviani, head of RSF’s East Asia bureau, in a press release.

Alviani added: “The vast majority of the 114 journalists currently detained in [mainland] China are imprisoned under allegations of national security-related crimes.” China ranks 177th out of 180 in RSF’s annual world press freedom index.

On May 28, China adopted the national security law for Hong Kong after a ceremonial vote by its rubber-stamp legislature. The law would criminalize those who engage in activities connected to subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign interference.

On Thursday, Beijing announced that the standing committee of the rubber-stamp legislature was deliberating the drafting of the law.

RSF warned that journalists covering Hong Kong’s mass protest movement against Beijing’s encroachment could be “prosecutable under the national security law as an act of terrorism” since Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam often referred to the movement as “terrorism.”

Journalists could also be at risk of being charged with “secession” for writing on Hong Kong’s cultural identity or the movement, RSF said.

RSF pointed out that Victor Mallet—whose visa wasn’t renewed by the Hong Kong government in 2018 after he hosted a panel that featured a local activist who pushed for Hong Kong’s formal independence—would have been charged with “secession” under the national security law.

The sedition charge could be slapped against journalists who report on pro-independence events or quote pro-independence activists.

“The punishment could extend to newspapers that run opinion pieces that criticize the Chinese government or investigative pieces concerning the illegal practices of Chinese officials,” RSF said about the sedition charge.

Employees of foreign media and their sources in Hong Kong could be accused of “serving foreign powers,” putting them at the risk of being subjected to “surveillance, harassment, violence or punishment,” according to RSF.

On June 18, HKJA’s chairperson Chris Yeung announced survey results of its 150 members conducted between June 8 and 11.

At a press conference, Yeung announced that 147 respondents (98 percent) said they opposed the national security law, while two respondents did not have an opinion, and one respondent supported the law.

When asked whether the law would have an impact on the city’s press freedoms, 131 respondents (87 percent) said the law would have a severe impact, while only one respondent said it would not have any impact.

71 percent said they would decrease their amount of coverage, and 87 percent they would stop their coverage on certain sensitive topics, such as Taiwan’s independence, Hong Kong’s independence, or Xinjiang. All are taboo subjects in China, as they challenge the Communist Party’s claim of sovereignty over those territories.

122 respondents (81 percent) said they believed media companies would start to self-censor once the law was implemented.

As for the future of Hong Kong’s press freedoms, 95 respondents (63 percent) said they were “extremely pessimistic,” 53 respondents (35 percent) said they were pessimistic, while one respondent said he was “extremely optimistic.”

Yeung, speaking at the press conference, said many protesters recently held up signs that read, “The Heavens Will Destroy the Chinese Communist Party.” Once the law was implemented, he said that media companies might worry if they could use any of their photos that happen to capture the sign.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer