Guilty verdict for Hong Kong journalist as media faces “frontal attack”

HONG KONG – The Hong Kong police chief warned reporters that they could be investigated for “false news”. A Chinese-controlled newspaper has called for a ban on the city’s largest pro-democracy news outlet. The masked men robbed the offices of a publication criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and destroyed its press.

Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom in Asia, which hosts much more aggressive and independent journalism than that found in mainland China, has been under sustained pressure for years. Now, as Beijing moves to eliminate dissent in the city, the news media is attacked directly. Traditional pressure tactics, such as advertising boycotts, have been overshadowed by a kind of campaign that could leave prominent journalists silent and their workplaces transformed or closed.

Recent targets include the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, whose founder was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week, and RTHK, a public broadcaster known for its in-depth investigations. On Thursday, one of the network’s award-winning producers, Choy Yuk-ling, was found guilty of making false statements to obtain public records for a report criticizing the police. She was forced to pay a $ 6,000 fine from Hong Kong, about $ 775.

“I seem to have kind of turned a corner quite recently,” said Keith Richburg, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Journalism and Media Studies. “Self-censorship is still an issue and we don’t know where the red lines are, but now we see what appears to be more of a frontal attack on the Hong Kong media.”

Beijing has long wanted to bring Hong Kong to its heels. The city, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory since the British handed over their former colony in 1997, played by its own set of rules. Residents enjoyed unseen freedoms on the continent, including unhindered internet access, the right to protest and an independent press.

But after large demonstrations in 2019 that convulsed the city and sometimes became violent, China’s central government took advantage of the unrest to let go. He imposed a harsh national security law last year that criminalizes many forms of anti-government discourse. He then made changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, tightening control of power by the pro-Beijing institution.

Pro-democracy MPs have been removed from office. The protest movement was silenced. The activists were imprisoned. And journalists woke up in the crosshairs of the government.

On Thursday, a Hong Kong court found that Ms. Choy, an independent producer, violated the law when she used a public database with license plate records as part of an investigation into a July 2019 mafia attack in a station, where people were injured. Activists have accused police of turning a blind eye to the violence.

The journalist, also known as Bao Choy, helped produce fine-grained documentaries for RTHK that examined who was behind the attacks and why police were late in responding. She was arrested in November and charged with making false statements about why she used the publicly accessible database.

Ms Choy said her case showed how the authorities were trying to block the news media and restrict access to information that was once available to the public.

“I realized from my arrest that it was not my individual problem,” she said in an interview. “It’s a bigger issue of press freedom in Hong Kong.”

Freedom of the press groups denounced Ms. Choy’s arrest and described her as part of a harassment campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the government’s case an “absurdly disproportionate action that amounts to an assault on press freedom.”

The case against Ms. Choy is the latest move against RTHK, Hong Kong’s most important public radio and television network, which has for years offered painful, critical reports to the government. The state charter gives it editorial independence, but, as a government entity, it has little protection from officials who want to see it brought under stricter control. Queen Ip, a pro-Beijing parliamentarian, said last week that the government should consider closing it completely.

Just a few months after the passage of the national security law, the Hong Kong government called for RTHK to be more closely monitored by government-appointed advisers.

The head of RTHK, a veteran reporter and editor, was replaced in February by a civil servant with no experience in journalism. Under that new leader, Patrick Li, two radio programs known for their lively political commentary were suspended.

Episodes of a television program focused on the city’s electoral review and two documentary programs were shot a few hours before they were scheduled to air. A program about student activists was canceled after the broadcaster said it did not meet standards of fairness and impartiality and included an inaccurate description of the national security law.

Journalists for RTHK said they had been warned that their payment could be docked to cover the costs of censored programs. The broadcaster’s journalists are not sure where the new limits are and how their work will be done, said current employees and former employees.

Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom advocacy group, said Tuesday that the security law posed a threat to journalists and that RTHK “is undergoing a full-scale intimidation campaign by the government to restrict its editorial autonomy.”

The Hong Kong government rejected the claim that RTHK was targeted and said it was “terrified” by the suggestion “that people with a particular profession should be immune to legal sanctions,” RTHK reported.

International news has also come under pressure in Hong Kong. An editor for the Financial Times was forced to leave the city in 2018, in apparent retaliation for his role in hosting a discussion of a pro-independence activist. The New York Times has moved a number of Hong Kong publishers to Seoul, in part because of problems with obtaining work permits.

The Epoch Times, a banned newspaper about the Falun Gong spiritual movement in mainland China, dealt with even more brutal attacks. On April 12, four men stormed the paper mill, smashing presses and computers. The newspaper said no one was injured and could resume publication shortly thereafter.

“The Epoch Times is not afraid of violent coercion,” spokeswoman Cheryl Ng said in a statement.

Perhaps the most prominent target so far has been Jimmy Lai, the open critic of the Chinese Communist Party who founded Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison last week after being sentenced for unauthorized assembly in connection with two protests in 2019. But his legal danger is far from over.

Apple Daily was attacked by police last year, and Mr Lai faces charges of national security law for allegedly demanding US sanctions against Hong Kong. According to the law, “serious” crimes, an ambiguous intentional term, apply sentences of up to life imprisonment.

Authorities did not fear threatening journalists. They made their views known in the pages of the state media, on the floor of the local legislature and at the police headquarters.

Hong Kong’s state-controlled newspapers have stepped up their criticism of Apple Daily, demanding that it be regulated or even shut down in accordance with national security law.

“If Apple Daily is not eliminated, there is still a gap in Hong Kong’s national security,” Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper owned by Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office, said in a comment last week.

Ms Ip, the pro-establishment MP, made it clear to RTHK journalists what she thought was their role. In a legislative session last week, she said a media reporter should be willing “to be a government spokesman.”

Chris Tang, the Hong Kong police commissioner, warned last week that publications that produce “fake news” could be investigated and called for new laws to help regulate the press.

However, many reporters say they will not be reassured by the government’s efforts to stifle its reporting.

“Some are disappointed,” said Gladys Chiu, president of the RTHK Program Staff Union. “But some believe there is still room to fight.”