Muting the media

Recent developments in Hong Kong serve as a reminder of the freedoms we take for granted

Updated - February 04, 2022 01:19 am IST

Published - February 04, 2022 12:15 am IST

A Hong Kong national security police officer (left) and a worker carry boxes of evidence from the offices of Stand News in Hong Kong on December 29, 2021, after police raided the office of the local media outlet and arrested six current and former staff.

A Hong Kong national security police officer (left) and a worker carry boxes of evidence from the offices of Stand News in Hong Kong on December 29, 2021, after police raided the office of the local media outlet and arrested six current and former staff.

Sometime last month, a curious disclaimer began appearing at the bottom of every opinion page article published in Ming Pao , one of Hong Kong’s most iconic and widely read newspapers. The newspaper, the disclaimer said, had “no intention to incite hatred, discontent, or hostility against the government or other sections of the population”.

The reason for the move was fairly obvious. In the past year, Hong Kong’s most outspoken media outlets have collapsed like dominoes in the wake of the passing of a new national security law that lists stiff penalties for “subversion” and other offences. In June last year, the widely read tabloid Apple Dailyceased publication after its founder was jailed , its offices were raided and its senior staff were arrested.

The Stand News followed in the end of 2021, after seven people connected to the online publication were charged with spreading seditious material. That same week, another independent outlet, Citizen News , abruptly announced it would close its website and pull down all its content.

Since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong has been ruled under a ‘one country, two systems’ model. The Basic Law guaranteed Hong Kong freedoms that are denied on the mainland. The freedom of the press was one of them.

After the Stand News arrests in December, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said it was “deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media and searched the offices of news organizations containing large quantities of journalistic materials within a year.” The association “urged the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law.”

That many Hong Kong reporters have little faith in that happening seems clear. In January, journalist Viola Zhou reported how in recent months many have quit their jobs. Some are driving taxis while others are running fried chicken restaurants. Noting the remarkable change in fortunes of what was one of Asia’s most vibrant media environments, Zhou wrote how the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin once quipped of Hong Kong’s famously intrepid reporters that they “asked naive questions but, in their pursuit of stories, ran faster than anyone else.”

I had first-hand experience of that quality during the pro-democracy protests in 2019, which brought millions of Hongkongers to the streets and frequently descended into violence between the police and the protesters. The protests, calling for universal suffrage and direct elections, were one reason that prompted Beijing to pass the national security law.

Wherever there were clashes, there were multiple reporters at the scene, often only with smartphones in hand. One video clip stayed in my memory. It showed one lone reporter running towards a tear gas shell, trying to capture the moment on camera, even as protesters ran for cover. I heard from many reporters that they believed that it was their constant presence that ensured that even after months of protests and no shortage of violence, there were remarkably no fatalities from direct police action.

Readers may shrug at these developments, increasingly immune to the dribs and drabs of news about changes in Hong Kong. Yet the significance of developments in Hong Kong extends beyond China.

For one, a vital source of news reporting on China now stands under a cloud. Hong Kong’s media often reported on topics that their colleagues on the mainland cannot touch. That may soon no longer be the case.

More broadly, the changes in Hong Kong’s vibrant media landscape also serve as a reminder of the fragility of freedoms that we sometimes take for granted. All it took was the passing of one law, as well as targeted raids on select establishments. The rest, very quickly, came to heel.

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