Hong Kong has fined a journalist for ticking a box. That shows the city’s media freedoms are in jeopardy

Hong Kong has fined a journalist for ticking a box. That shows the city’s media freedoms are in jeopardy [ad_1]

In essence, Choy was prosecuted for ticking a field: She had used a authorities registry to hint license plates linked to a mob that had attacked pro-democracy protesters in a subway station in 2019.

In the previous, journalists had been in a position to specify “media” on the type to clarify why they had been looking the database. But in 2019 the type modified, so Choy ticked “other traffic and transport related matters.”

That was a crime. The 37-year-old was accused of violating Hong Kong’s Road Traffic Ordinance by making a false declaration and fined 6,000 Hong Kong {dollars} ($770).

To many onlookers, nevertheless, Choy’s case wasn’t about misused packing containers. It was an assault on journalism.

Although freedom of speech and the press are enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the media’s independence and talent to report has come below risk in current years. The controversial national security law, a sweeping piece of laws handed final 12 months, urges the authorities to additional regulate media and the web.

Thugs smash Epoch Times’ printing press in Hong Kong in April 2021. Credit: Epoch Times

In the previous month alone, there have been a slew of assaults on press freedom: A Chinese state-run paper in Hong Kong known as for an embattled pro-democracy paper to close; the city’s police chief proposed an anti-fake information legislation; and thugs accused of being linked to the Chinese Communist Party smashed the printing press of an independent newspaper.

Choy’s case is emblematic of the continuously shifting guidelines in the metropolis — the new actuality that actions deemed affordable in the future might result in prosecution the subsequent.

Ticking a field

On a summer time night time in July 2019, a mob of about 70 males in white shirts stormed a Hong Kong subway station and commenced to beat commuters and protesters with iron bars and bamboo sticks.

Videos from the night time present commuters screaming in subway automobiles in Yuen Long station, close to the border with mainland China. The males appeared to focus on these dressed in black getting back from pro-democracy demonstrations in one other a part of Hong Kong.

As folks frantically known as for assist, authorities acquired greater than 24,000 calls in three-and-a-half hours — effectively over the common day by day quantity, officers later told the city’s legislative physique.
But it took 39 minutes for the riot police to arrive. By then, most of the white-clad mob had left, in response to an Independent Police Complaints Council report.

Later, the police mentioned officers had been busy with protests on Hong Kong island, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) away. None of the white-clad males was arrested that night time, though dozens had been arrested subsequently.

To the pro-democracy camp, this was a turning level. Tensions had been already hovering after greater than a month of major protests, however the horrific scenes coupled with the police’s gradual response solely added to a deterioration of belief in officers. Many believed members of the mob — suspected by members of the public to be linked to crime gangs — had been colluding with the authorities, though the police denied it.

It was that pivotal occasion that public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and freelance producer Choy wished to analyze.

The outlet obtained CCTV footage from round the subway station that night time which captured vehicles carrying males in white shirts. So Choy used what had lengthy been a customary journalistic methodology: She searched the car registration database to see who owned them.

Several of the license plates, Choy discovered, had been linked to village representatives, or native leaders.

Bao Choy arrives at Fanling Magistrates' Court for a hearing.Bao Choy arrives at Fanling Magistrates' Court for a hearing.
Yuen Long, an space nearer to mainland China than Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbor, has allegedly lengthy been dwelling to so-called triad members, who researchers say have been used as “thugs for hire” in mainland China. Local Hong Kong officers have even faced allegations of working with the legal gangs.

RTHK’s documentary supplied extra proof that when the white-clad mob attacked folks in Yuen Long’s prepare station, they’d some official assist.

A violation or a search for fact?

After RTHK’s 23-minute documentary, “Hong Kong Connection: 721 Who Owns the Truth,” was launched final 12 months, it received reward and awards, together with one final Wednesday from the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).

But on November 3, 2020, Choy was arrested on suspicion of violating the Road Traffic Ordinance.

The authorities mentioned Choy’s case was the results of a complaint. At her trial, the choose dominated that car homeowners anticipated privateness after they submitted their data to the Transport Department, and located her responsible of violating the ordinance, a cost carrying as much as six months in jail.
Radio Television Hong Kong producer Bao Choy arrives at the West Kowloon Courts building in Hong Kong on April 22, 2021.Radio Television Hong Kong producer Bao Choy arrives at the West Kowloon Courts building in Hong Kong on April 22, 2021.

Choy is believed to be the first journalist convicted of violating the ordinance, and the first particular person sentenced in reference to the Yuen Long assaults, in response to her lawyer, Jonathan Man. Last week, police confirmed they arrested a reporter from state-owned pro-Beijing outlet Ta Kung Pao over the identical cost in February.

After the verdict, Choy’s eyes grew purple as she stood, surrounded by cheering supporters and media, exterior a courtroom in West Kowloon the place many pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted over the previous 12 months.

“I believe that investigative journalism is not a crime,” she mentioned. “My journalistic values will not be affected by this case.”

Chris Yeung, the chair of the HKJA, known as the verdict a “dark day” for Hong Kong journalism.

“Press freedom in Hong Kong is dying,” he mentioned. “It’s a fine for all journalists.”

To Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at Chinese University Hong Kong’s faculty of journalism and communication, mentioned the case is a signal the authorities is transferring the aim posts.

Before the choice to specify media was faraway from the kinds in 2019, journalist requests had been widespread — in some years, they made up a quarter of all applications. In a assertion to CNN Business, Hong Kong Transport Department mentioned the 2019 revision was to “better elaborate the purposes for the avoidance of misunderstanding” and famous that even earlier than the change, the knowledge obtained by the request was solely meant for use for actions associated to visitors and transport issues.

But the case set a precedent that wanting up a license plate for journalistic causes is not authorized — one other blow for freedom of knowledge, Tsui mentioned.

Tsui mentioned it additionally seems to point out that authorities are ready to go after journalists who dig up issues that made them look dangerous. “It’s hard to not see this as an attack on truth,” he added.

In a assertion to CNN Business, the Hong Kong authorities mentioned any arrest had “nothing to do with the political stance, background or occupation” of the particular person involved.

Other blows

For years, Hong Kong was dwelling to a full of life media panorama with publications spanning the political spectrum. But the city’s media freedoms have slowly diminished in current years as mainland China’s influence over the former British territory grows.

“Everyone in Hong Kong is self censoring,” mentioned Tsui mentioned. “In the last couple of years, there has been a sustained attack — not just on press freedom, but on rights in general.”

Several occasions in 2018, for instance, had a notably chilling impact on the media surroundings.

That 12 months, the Financial Times’ Asia editor Victor Mallet‘s software for a routine extension of his Hong Kong work allow was denied months after he hosted a speak by a pro-independence activist at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. Prominent English-language paper South China Morning Post was criticized for working an interview with a Hong Kong publisher who was detained in the mainland. The interview had been organized by China’s public safety ministry, elevating issues about the newspaper’s choice to run what some noticed as a coerced interview. Separately, a cultural establishment suddenly canceled a speak with exiled Chinese author Ma Jian. The venue mentioned at the time it didn’t wish to develop into “a platform to promote the political interests of any individual.”

Police raid Apple Daily’s places of work in Hong Kong in August 2020. Credit: Apple Daily

And media freedom advocates argue that the panorama has solely gotten extra hostile since final 12 months’s nationwide safety legislation got here into impact.

While Carrie Lam, the city’s chief, mentioned after that legislation was handed that Hong Kong folks ought to nonetheless be capable of take pleasure in freedom of speech and press, the new rule was later used to carry prices in opposition to media mogul Jimmy Lai, the founding father of the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily. As police raided his newspaper’s places of work, they charged him with organizing an unauthorized protest and colluding with international forces.

The nationwide security-related prices in opposition to Lai are nonetheless pending, and the laws has not but been used in opposition to reporters. But Tsui, from Chinese University Hong Kong, mentioned that might change in the future.

In a assertion to CNN Business on Tuesday, the Hong Kong authorities mentioned it’s “firmly committed to protecting and respecting the freedom of the press, which is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Basic Law.”

When requested whether or not it was possible journalists can be prosecuted below the nationwide safety legislation in the future, the authorities mentioned that “law-abiding people will not unwittingly violate the law.”

Pressure on journalists has continued to mount this 12 months. In February, for instance, Xia Baolong, the director of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, known as for Hong Kong’s media to be run by “patriots.”

Members of the media are feeling the squeeze, too. Last 12 months, the HKJA discovered a third of journalists surveyed felt pressured by their seniors to drop or scale back reporting on Hong Kong independence. And Keith B. Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong and the head of the city’s Foreign Correspondents Club, mentioned journalists had famous some sources did not wish to speak anymore.

A current rating of worldwide press freedoms signifies that the surroundings in Hong Kong has modified. The worldwide watchdog Reporters Without Borders — which qualifies such freedoms based mostly on knowledge on abuse and acts of violence in opposition to journalists together with a questionnaire to consultants — ranked Hong Kong 80 out of 180 countries for press freedom, down from 18 out of 138 in 2002.

Pressures on RTHK

Perhaps no publication in Hong Kong has extra soul looking to do than public broadcaster RTHK on the subject of navigating the new panorama. Over the previous 12 months, the station — which started broadcasting in 1928, when the metropolis was below British rule — has axed episodes of present affairs shows, stopped broadcasting BBC World information applications, and investigated one its most profitable reporters who turned recognized for her probing questions of officers.
Hong Kong public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) staffers wear masks depicting the journalist Nabela Qoser during a silent protest against the management's treatment of her outside Broadcasting House on January 28, 2021 in Hong Kong.Hong Kong public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) staffers wear masks depicting the journalist Nabela Qoser during a silent protest against the management's treatment of her outside Broadcasting House on January 28, 2021 in Hong Kong.
In February, the Hong Kong authorities announced the broadcaster’s director Leung Ka-wing can be stepping down early, to get replaced by Patrick Li, a civil servant with none media expertise — prompting RTHK’s program workers union to say the station had misplaced its editorial independence.
As he started in his new job in March, Li advised reporters there was no “freedom without restraint.” And on Tuesday, RTHK introduced a new slot for chief govt Lam who will now seem on the channel 4 instances a week to debate Beijing’s overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system.

In an emailed assertion to CNN Business, RTHK mentioned it doesn’t touch upon particular person courtroom instances or staffing points. The broadcaster mentioned that it suspended the BBC World Service after the National Radio and Television Administration introduced that BBC World News was not allowed to proceed inside Chinese territory. Its applications should abide by the constitution, the producers’ tips and the legal guidelines of Hong Kong, the broadcaster added. “As stipulated in the Charter, RTHK is editorially independent.”

As for Choy, the RTHK reporter: When requested by the media Tuesday whether or not Choy’s verdict undermined investigative journalism, Lam mentioned no one is above the legislation.

“If the law today doesn’t allow you to do certain things — and even though we respect freedom of speech and I recognize your profession — you cannot do it. We need to balance the interests of different parties.”

Beijing’s financial affect

There are issues that mainland China’s elevated financial affect on Hong Kong might exert stress on media retailers in the metropolis.

Clement So, a Chinese University of Hong Kong professor who research Hong Kong’s media panorama, mentioned in the previous decade, a rising variety of media organizations had mainland Chinese funding, one thing he believed might result in self-censorship.

After distinguished English-language paper the South China Morning Post (SCMP) was purchased by Chinese tech big Alibaba in 2015, for instance, there was concern the paper’s editorial freedom can be compromised. Critics have hyper-analyzed the publication for indicators of Beijing’s affect — but it surely has continued to report on matters that Chinese state media do not contact, akin to the Hong Kong protests and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Employees work in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in Hong Kong, on June 5, 2020. Employees work in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in Hong Kong, on June 5, 2020.
Last month Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal reported the Chinese authorities wished the Alibaba group to shed a few of its media belongings — doubtlessly together with SCMP — as a consequence of its outsize affect over public opinion, after its founder Jack Ma fell from grace for publicly criticizing Chinese monetary regulators. If Beijing not accredited of Ma, one in every of China’s digital darlings and world success tales, proudly owning the newspaper, it raised questions over who is perhaps deemed an applicable purchaser.

An SCMP journalist — who requested to not be named — mentioned they and others in the newsroom felt an “instant panic,” fearing the purchaser could possibly be a state-owned entity or pro-Beijing firm.

In an inside electronic mail seen by CNN Business, nevertheless, SCMP chief govt Gary Liu mentioned Alibaba’s dedication to SCMP “remains unchanged,” and the firm “will not be responding publicly to these unsubstantiated rumors.” CNN Business has reached out to Alibaba for remark.

The reviews additionally supplied a silver lining, although. To the worker, the widespread concern over SCMP’s future confirmed the paper’s worth.

“At least we’re having conversations now about why the SCMP is actually playing quite an important role and what that would mean if it was lost,” the SCMP journalist mentioned.

Follow the cash

To journalist Ronson Chan, vice-chairman of the HKJA, all this factors to an unmistakable conclusion: there’s now a attainable hazard in being a journalist in Hong Kong.

“If you ask my heart, of course, I know being a journalist, especially working for a non-Beijing controlled media, must have some caution or possible danger,” mentioned Chan, who has labored throughout 11 media retailers, together with at non-profit investigative information company FactWire, the place he labored with Choy.

Now an editor at non-profit pro-democracy information web site Stand News, he says he would not be shocked if he was arrested.

Part of the drawback is a elementary disagreement over the function of reports. While Western journalism concept sees worth in objectivity and holding authority to account, Chinese leaders see it has a “tool of political propaganda,” he mentioned.

Chan believes China’s historical past of cracking down on dissidents and journalists tells him he ought to depart the metropolis, earlier than he’s prosecuted. That’s one thing he has mentioned along with his spouse. “I don’t know if it will become an evidence in my prosecution talking to you today,” he mentioned.

It would not be the first time: interviews Apple Daily’s Lai gave to worldwide media had been cited as proof in his nationwide safety legislation instances.

But in the finish, Chan desires to proceed reporting in his metropolis.

“Hong Kong is our home,” mentioned Chan. “If we left, the Hong Kong people have no news to read.”

— CNN’s Eric Cheung contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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