Reports of Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on the verge of closing, has come as a huge setback to the Asian financial hub’s democracy movement and to free speech. The development has evoked strong reactions from activists, political leaders and media organizations within Hong Kong and outside. The tabloid’s closure which seems imminent now, comes ahead of Beijing’s controversial national security law which completes one year in Hong Kong on June 30.
The message was loud and clear. The national security law gives the government broad power to limit people’s political freedom, to arrest several journalists at the news outlet, founded by imprisoned tycoon Jimmy Lai. Hong Kong police had raided the pro democracy newspaper Apple Daily and arrested five senior executives on June 17. All were charged under the controversial national security law and accused of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security. The police have accused them of publishing 30 articles, in both Chinese and English, that allegedly pursued foreign sanctions since 2019 which played a very crucial part in the conspiracy. Undoubtedly, the police action is highly condemnable. It is nothing but a direct interference of China in Hong Kong’s daily affairs through its national security law.
Hong Kong has seen a constant decline in press freedom and democratic rights ever since the controversial national security law came into effect on June 30, 2020. Otherwise, Hong Kong had long been respected as a powerful global economic hub and lively political and democratic space, supported by a proud and strong independent media. The national security law has undermined fundamental rights and freedom of expression – notwithstanding by bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature – and severely damages Hong Kong’s autonomy. Available data 2020 showed that the controversial law has been used to arrest over 100 pro-democracy figures. Apple Daily founder, Jimmy Lai, was the first high profile target in the campaign of intimidation against Apple Daily operations when he was arrested in August 2020 on suspicion of violating the national security law. On April 1, the court Lai convicted for organizing and taking part in an unauthorized assembly in 2019.
International media rights bodies have deplored the police raid and arrest of Apple daily executives stating that the excessive show of force by Hong Kong police in descending on Apple Daily’s operations was a disturbing development and showed the great lengths to which authorities are prepared to silence critical reporting in Hong Kong. The attack has defied all international human rights principles and represented a dire low point in Hong Kong’s media history. Journalism is not a crime.
Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) poll released in the first week of May indicated that the level of media freedom in Hong Kong for media workers has plunged to a record low after the imposition of the national security law. The Hong Kong Press Freedom Index for 2020 indicated that 91 percent of the 367 journalists surveyed have accepted about the worsening situation regarding press freedom in Hong Kong over the past year. The press freedom situation in Hong Kong plummeted from a rating of 40.9 in 2018 to 36.2 points in 2019 and to a record low of 32.1 points in 2020, indicated the index. As many as 85 per cent journalists who took part in the survey, have expressed concern over the suppression of press freedom by the Hong Kong government, while 40 percent of them felt pressure from their superiors when covering politically sensitive issues, such as Hong Kong independence.
The vast majority of journalists surveyed have rated the national security law as harmful to press freedom in Hong Kong. The legislation, imposed by Beijing, punishes actions deemed by the authorities as secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces with heavy penalties, including life imprisonment. The police raid on Next Digital media group’s premises in August 2020, Law enforcement’s unilateral decision to amend rules for issuing press passes and the conviction of freelance producer Bao Choy Yuk-ling, as a result of her investigative reporting were a few examples of the authorities’ efforts to undermine press freedom in the Hong Kong. China has justified the police action stating that Apple Daily cannot be above the law. The role Apple Daily played in Hong Kong’s turmoil went far beyond the duty of a media outlet, and became a direct agitator of rioters and supporter of Western forces. This has sent a strong signal to Hong Kong society that the Basic Law and the national security law must be unconditionally abided by.
In view of these developments, the confrontation between media organizations and the authorities cannot be ruled out. The autocratic regime of China is in no mood to allow journalists to work freely in Hong Kong. It will be a bad situation indeed.