BANGKOK – With the demise of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper, questions remain about the future of press freedom in the city.
Apple DailyThe editor of said that with founder Jimmy Lai in prison, five executives arrested under the National Security Act and his financial assets frozen, it was impossible to continue.
The shutdown was greeted with international condemnation, especially from US President Joe Biden, who said Thursday: “Beijing must stop targeting the independent press.”
But as the final million-copy edition sold out, media analysts said the loss of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper could impact the press scene and how journalists approach the report on certain issues.
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On Sunday, the impact appeared to be spreading, with news website Stand News announcing that it would temporarily remove some comments and opinion pieces from its website.
Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post and online media New citizens reported that Apple Daily Columnist Fung Wai-kong, 57, was arrested Sunday evening at the airport on suspicion of foreign collusion aimed at endangering national security.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said it was a journalist’s responsibility not to break national security law and denied that the Apple Daily affair was an attack on the media.
“What we are dealing with is neither a media problem nor a reporting problem. It is a suspicious act endangering national security,” Lam said in a briefing last week.
EEric Wishart, co-organizer of the press freedom committee at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club and professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, said: âThe big question is when do you cross that line? ?
“Can an opinion piece break the law?” [Can] is quoting someone outside of Hong Kong breaking the law? It’s a big demand for journalists, âhe told VOA.
Andrew Powner, managing partner of Haldanes, a Hong Kong law firm that represents international media, said the foreign press continued to report freely, including criticism of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.
âIt would appear that international media that only quote Western critics or lawyers calling for sanctions should not be breaking (National Security Law); provided that the content of the article does not attempt to induce others to commit offenses under (law), but falls within internationally accepted standards of balanced reporting, âPowner said via email.
Until the first judicial interpretation of the security law is reached, the “red lines” will not be known in detail, Powner said. He added that the allegations and evidence that led to the Apple Daily the arrests of executives are not yet public.
The lawyer said press freedom is guaranteed by law and that the authorities said the arrests were an “exceptional case”.
An advisor to Apple DailyThe Hong Kong founder said the Hong Kong Security Bureau alleged the newspaper violated the law in 30 articles, but failed to notify editors what they were.
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Security Bureau told VOA earlier this week that he would not comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, but that “endangering national security is a very serious crime.”
Two Hong Kong lawmakers told VOA the law is important. It was adopted in July last year in reaction to mass anti-government protests in 2019 that often turned violent.
Eunice Yung said there were no exemptions under the legislation, adding that the executives were rightly arrested. “They have to bear the legal consequences if they break the national security law,” she said.
Yung said the Apple Daily not about freedom of the press, but acknowledged that it was difficult to draw the line.
“If you are just criticizing the law or commenting on its strength, or what the law should include, or what should be exempted, I think that’s allowed and very reasonable,” she said. But “if you ask a foreign country to sanction Hong Kong officials, that’s another story.”
Lawmaker Holden Chow expressed a similar view, saying Hong Kong would continue to have freedoms “as long as they do not go beyond the law.”
Keith Richburg, professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, told VOA in May that it was “disturbing” that media critical of the government were targeted in the city, with “Apple Daily and News from the stand probably on the front line.
News from the stand was founded in 2014 and describes itself as a pro-democracy news site.
During the 2019 protests, several of its reporters were injured, including journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho. She was one of 47 people charged with subversion under the law in February.
Ronson Chan, the deputy editor of the website, told VOA last week: âAfter the close of Apple Daily, half of Hong Kong people say News from the stand will be the next target.
âI haven’t heard a very clear message that we may be searched or our staff will be arrested. From my understanding of the law and the police operation, I don’t think we have a problem with our reporting, “Chan said. He added that News from the stand ” editorial policy sticks to its “state of mind” and “principles”.
The news site made a similar comment on Sunday, when it announced via its website the temporary removal of comments, editorials, blogs and reader contributions. The website said news articles and videos would not be affected.
News from the stand said six of its board members have resigned and the website “continues to operate and its policy and editorial work remain unchanged.”
Chan told VOA on Sunday that the website was not under pressure from the government, saying, “All measures are taken by ourselves.”
Hong Kong’s only public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), has also come under scrutiny in recent months, with its new broadcast manager cutting popular shows for alleged bias. Journalists were fired and Lam received his own television segment, a move criticized as propaganda by critics.
Mark Simon, Lai’s assistant at Next Digital – the parent company of Apple Daily – declared that the repression of the media would have a “lasting impact”.
âYou can’t have political prisoners, you can’t shut down the media, you can’t grab private property and be an international financial center; that doesn’t happen, âSimon told VOA last week.
Self-proclaimed “Global City of Asia”, Hong Kong has long had a reputation as a global financial hub.
But with scenes of protesters, tear gas and riot police during protests in 2019, that reputation has taken a hit. Add the National Security Law last year, and international companies are considering their options.
Political analyst Joseph Chen, formerly from Hong Kong and now in Australia, cited a recent investigation into how changes in the region were affecting the city’s international status.
When the Hong Kong American Chamber of Commerce, a leading trade organization, surveyed its members, 42% said they were considering leaving. Of the 300 members who responded, the most widely shared concern was about the National Security Act.
âApparently, many multinational companies in Hong Kong are planning to scale down their operations and expand their operations to other cities in Asia, such as Singapore and Tokyo,â Chen said. “I think these trends will hurt Hong Kong’s economy for the foreseeable future.”
The security law has certainly affected Apple Daily. The newspaper sold out after 26 years, and two of the five executives were denied bail. A hearing is scheduled for August 13.
Some information for this report is from The Associated Press.