Hong Kong people hold Apple Daily newspaper
People hold up copies of the Apple Daily to demonstrate for press freedom inside a mall in Hong Kong on August 11, 2020, a day after authorities conducted a search of the newspaper's headquarters and arrested publisher Jimmy Lai under the new national security law. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

Hong Kong journalists struggle to carry on as national security law hits Apple Daily

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An unnerving wait for the first impact on journalists of Hong Kong’s new National Security Law came to an abrupt end early yesterday when police arrested Next Digital founder and chair Jimmy Lai, along with four company executives and his two sons, while sending more than a hundred police officers on a raid of Apple Daily offices at the Tseung Kwan O industrial estate, as CPJ reported. The move against the anti-communist, pro-democracy Lai, who was released on bail after two days, and his media group was not entirely surprising—a number of Hong Kong journalists told CPJ in the past that Apple Daily would be the first target. Yet the broad scope of the arrests and the overpowering force used to raid the office seemed plainly designed to send a message to the rest of Hong Kong’s vulnerable press community.

Authorities wasted no time showing the broader public they meant business with the new law when it came into effect on July 1. They arrested demonstrators carrying Hong Kong independence signs on the first day, and on the next, criminalized a popular slogan—“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” They proceeded to ban protest songs; raid a polling institute; arrest former members of a pro-independence group; ban pro-democracy politicians, including sitting legislators, from running for office; and order the arrest of six overseas democracy activists, including Samuel Chu, an overseas Hong Konger who has held U.S. citizenship for 25 years.

The law has a number of provisions that could trip up journalists. It cites four areas of infractions: secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreigners to endanger national security. It’s not clear if reporting on these activities might constitute a crime, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to clarify. “It is not a question of me standing here to give you a guarantee of what you may or may not do in the days and weeks and years ahead,” she told a press conference on July 7, skirting questions about the vagueness of the law. The law makes it a crime to provoke hatred toward the Chinese government. It calls for increased government supervision and regulation of the media, and strengthened “management” of foreign news agencies, without specifying what that means. Police have the right to search any premises, seize and search electronic devices and to conduct surveillance, including communications intercepts, without a court order.

For the raid of Next Media, police claim they were following the letter of a warrant that excluded gathering materials about journalist interviews, although photos show police rifling through materials on journalists’ desks, apparently indiscriminately. Police claim they were scanning material to confirm they did not gather journalist material, according to a report in the Ming Pao newspaper. Police left with 25 boxes of evidence, including computer servers that Apple Daily lawyers said contained reporting material, according to Apple Daily.

Even before the raid, Hong Kong’s much vaunted tradition of often boisterous press freedom had already taken a big hit.  “It’s now happening that press freedom has been affected, but not directly by the law itself,” said an independent local Chinese journalist, before Lai’s arrest. One indication: few of the dozen or so journalists interviewed for this article, Hong Kongers and foreigners alike, were willing to be named, a stark difference from CPJ’s previous reporting. But our aim is to protect journalists, not inadvertently get them in trouble. And right now, what might get someone in trouble is a complete fog.

“We have no clue how it’s going to operate,” said Keith Richburg, former Washington Post correspondent who heads the journalism program at Hong Kong University, figuring that the law is ambiguous by design. Richburg likens the situation to tiptoeing under a python in a chandelier, moving carefully to avoid it coming down and striking.

The snake-in-the-chandelier metaphor to illustrate the impact of ambiguity was first coined in 2002 by Chinese scholar Perry Link, when he wrote: “In sum, the Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’”

Indeed, on July, 6, Koo Tak Ming, of the Apple Daily, announced that he would stop writing his column, which was often critical of China, after 30 years, wondering if just reporting the facts of the spread of the virus from Wuhan or flooding in Hunan would violate the new law. “Under such pressure, how can I not say goodbye to my column?” he wrote. Many journalists told CPJ that sources were suddenly less willing to talk to them, and that reporters had begun to delete interview material after a story had been published and explore other methods of enhanced security, aware that security police have the right to seize and search electronic devices.

“There’s going to a lot more anonymous sourcing or fake names having to be used by journalists,” said a reporter at an English newspaper.  Some community newspapers in Hong Kong deleted archives out of concern for the new law, according to reports. One broadcast journalist said the push for self-censorship on sensitive topics was coming from the top: An “editor I spoke to clearly said [senior management] didn’t want our newsroom to be ‘test cases’ and have colleagues arrested because of how we write stories.”

A prominent local writer said: “People are worried and are uncertain about how precisely the law will be enforced. Officials have said that normal, proper reporting is okay, but it is always subject to their interpretation if they say it is not normal or proper. You never know what will cause you trouble.”

CPJ has documented the gradual erosion of press freedom in Hong Kong in recent years and yet, many journalists continue efforts to adhere to the highest professional standards.

According to the experienced editor of one Chinese news website: “We will not make any change because what we did in the past was purely journalism. We are not a political advocacy group. If a piece of news is critical of the authorities, if it has the possibility of infringing the law, if we did it in a journalistic way, if we checked the facts, we will still run it.”

This editor acknowledges that the law contains many potential red lines that could lead to trouble. Yet, “It’s ridiculous if you try to second guess where the red line is. If we did that, literally we could do nothing. They can interpret the law in any way they like, in any way that suits their purpose.”

One concession, the editor said, is increased attention to protection of sources, including being careful not to quote people in ways that could potentially put them in violation of the law.

Tom Grundy, founder and editor of the Hong Kong Free Press is also forging ahead, emphasizing balance in stories and a code of ethics spelled out on the website. “I’m on high alert for staff that’s engaging in self-censorship,” which he won’t allow, he said. Grundy has several times unsuccessfully sought clarification as to whether the government will enforce limits on press freedom, including reporting on individuals advocating independence. Most recently, HKFP has published interviews with exiled democracy activists Wayne Chan and Nathan Law, both of whom are wanted by the Hong Kong police on suspicion of violating the national security law.

Another holdout for press freedom is the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. The FCC issued a statement yesterday condemning the arrest of Lai and the newsroom raid, pointing out that it contradicted promises of press freedom given repeatedly by the Hong Kong government. On August 6, the Club objected to delays in issuing visas to foreign journalists, earning it a stiff rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry which, intentionally or not, made clear that the Chinese government was calling the shots on visas, not the Hong Kong Immigration Department, which in theory made its own decisions. Earlier in July, the Club hosted a freewheeling and highly critical discussion of what the law meant for journalists.

With the Chinese Foreign Ministry involved, no one know if mainland-style controls might be fully implemented in Hong Kong — for example, restricting locals or even foreign permanent residents from working freely for foreign news bureaus. The New York Times cited “challenges securing work permits” when it reported in July it would move its digital news operations to Seoul.

Many journalists who spoke to CPJ predicted that Hong Kong’s press freedom would be further infringed. “It is going to be a different place,” said a foreign correspondent. “It’s not going to be what we had even a few months ago. It’s not yet a censored and controlled media landscape. We are going to be somewhere in between these two things.”

Right now, local journalists are trying to thwart a government initiative to license journalists, who could otherwise face arrest while covering street protests. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has been in discussion with police about this for months, trying to prevent it, journalists tell CPJ.One factor, according to a foreign correspondent who asked not to be named, was that Hong Kong needed some degree of press freedom in order for financial markets to thrive, and that, in the end, Hong Kong’s government valued the presence of the foreign press. While that might be true, it’s still unclear how much the Beijing government shares those values and concerns.

In the meantime, journalists will continue to tread cautiously, lest the monster snake in the chandelier be tempted again to descend, as it did on Jimmy Lai and Next Digital.

Iris Hsu, CPJ’s China correspondent, contributed research from Taipei.