In what was once considered a safe haven for free speech for local and foreign news organizations operating in the region, journalists and their sources are becoming increasingly wary that as China becomes more rigid in Hong Kong, they could be prosecuted.
Hong Kong holds a unique position in the region as it hosts the only free press in any region or territory managed by the Chinese government. However, there is no clear guidance on what the new safety law means for the city’s long-standing media community.
The fact that the legislation does not have specific details is not an omission, according to experts such as Sophie Richardson, China’s Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“This law is so vague and so exaggerated that it could possibly apply to almost any kind of behavior or speech, and that is exactly the goal of the Chinese government: Everyone wants to start and think, ‘Wait a minute, is this repression?’ Oh wait a minute, is this a collision? “Richardson said.
The indefinite nature of the law will lead to this censorship, which may be exactly what Beijing wants, said Steven Butler, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“The Chinese Communist Party can achieve what it wants to achieve without ever having to enforce the law,” he said.
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam has argued that it will not affect freedom of speech, which is enshrined in the city’s 1997 de facto constitution called the Basic Law. But the new law could replace such protections, Butler said.
When asked by CNN in a press conference on Wednesday whether people would be allowed to criticize the new law, Lam said: “If people, including journalists from CNN, fulfill their role and feel that something is wrong and want to criticize, then I don’t do it see why this would be a crime under this law. “
But he warned, “If there is more, if you are involved in the organization or collusion, that is another matter. It is a matter of evidence and law.”
Freedom of the press in Hong Kong has come under pressure in recent years, Butler said, adding that journalists covering demonstrations in favor of democracy in the city have been targeted by police.
For journalists who are citizens of Hong Kong, the consequences of violating the new law could be dire. They can be tried behind closed doors and sentenced to life in prison. Those found guilty of involvement in or aiding and abetting crimes may also face between three and 10 years in prison.
Hong Kong authorities have not outlined how the new media law enforcement committee will influence foreign journalists, who – unlike their counterparts in mainland China – do not need special journalistic views.
Then there are sources and interview topics, many of which are likely to be even more cautious to talk to the media – something journalists in mainland China are already facing, said Richardson of HRW.
Butler, in the CPJ, said in recent days that journalists had already been called from sources and were asking for an interview to delete previous articles or communications with sources that could be considered provocative.
CNN, which has a large office in the city, spoke with sources who have expressed their reluctance to participate in interviews. Within hours of the bill being approved, sources called for the previous WhatsApp chats to be deleted and expressed their concern about articles about the law.
Waiting for “test” cases
Butler and Richardson said it was only a matter of time before there was a “trial” where a journalist would be tried under the new law.
“I would not be surprised if some journalists end up being prosecuted under this law at some point in the not-too-distant future,” Richardson said.
For now, news organizations and proponents of press freedom can only try pushes the Hong Kong government.
“Hong Kong has been a leader in supporting the rights of the free press in Asia for decades and it is important that it continues to do so, especially given the treatment of members of the independent press in mainland China and the global nature of the corona pandemic,” a spokesman said. of the New York Times on CNN Business, adding that he is closely monitoring the situation.
Butler said he hoped Hong Kong’s position as a financial center and an important Asian gateway for Western companies would protect press freedoms.
“You can’t have an international financial center without freedom of speech and the press,” he said.
– Jessie Yeung, Ivan Watson and James Griffiths contributed to this article.