Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 11 February 2022

 Hong Kong democracy and media freedom has ‘entered endgame’

International body calls on foreign governments to support journalists fleeing Hong Kong

Apple Daily founder, Jimmy Lai, in July 2020

Apple Daily founder, Jimmy Lai, in July 2020. He has said Hong Kong will become ‘a cage, like Xinjiang’. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

The fight for democracy and media freedom in Hong Kong feels like it has “entered its endgame”, after a year of crackdowns, arrests and forced closures of outlets, the International Federation for Journalists has said.

In a report on the ongoing threats to the press in Hong Kong, titled Lights Out, the IFJ called on governments to offer support and pathways for Hong Kong journalists seeking to flee the city and find refuge to keep working. It noted “a clear and documented exodus and closure of both local and international media outlets, journalists and media workers that once earned Hong Kong a reputation as a bastion for media excellence in the Asia region”.

About 20 media workers, executives and defenders have been arrested or detained since the implementation of the national security law in June 2020, including high-profile figures such as the Apple Daily founder, Jimmy Lai. In newly published letters from prison, the media mogul and activist said he feared the crackdown would eventually turn Hong Kong into “a cage, like Xinjiang”, where China is accused of incarcerating at least 1 million mostly Muslim minorities and other human rights abuses.

The IFJ report detailed the arrests, detentions, forced closures and other direct acts against the media, but also described more insidious efforts, including internal changes at national broadcasters, pro-Beijing media attacks and intimidation, and opacity around ever shifting “red lines” which the media struggled to navigate, as well as tightening restrictions on public records. It said fear and uncertainty now dominated life in Hong Kong, and “there is a now a palpable sense that the fight for democracy and media freedom has entered its endgame”.

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“We haven’t come to this conclusion easily; it’s deeply concerning we’ve come to this point,” IFJ’s Asia Pacific director, Jane Worthington, told the Guardian.

“It’s changing the whole reporting map of Asia, what is happening in Hong Kong. It’s shuffling everything around.”

Since the introduction of the national security law, some foreign journalists have left, or been denied visas. The New York Times shifted staff to Seoul, while Initium Media decamped its headquarters to Singapore, and several journalists forced to leave China were unable to resettle in Hong Kong and have set up in Taiwan. There were, however, fewer options for Hong Kong journalists, Worthington said.

The IFJ said journalists who chose to move overseas would need support from foreign governments – akin to the UK’s pathways for Hongkongers – to continue their work in exile.

“We have a real argument that they are persecuted,” Worthington said. “Not all will have the economic circumstances to move themselves and their families … They need pathways.”

Of the media workers and defenders who had been detained, at least 12 had been charged with national security or other offences, including Lai.

Arrested in August 2020, Lai has been in prison since December 2020, on remand and then serving sentences for a number of convictions while also awaiting trial on national security charges.

In excerpts from prison letters written in late 2021, to be published in the March issue of Index on Censorship magazine, Lai railed against the government assault on freedom of the press and speech, and said he was relying on his faith as a source of strength while in jail.

Writing after Apple Daily’s closure, Lai said the “barbaric suppression” of Beijing and the Hong Kong government had worked, and quieted the population.

“But the muted anger they have is not going away. Even those emigrating will have it forever,” he said.

“This Apple Daily shutdown only aggravates it, making it certain to people that the hopelessness of Hong Kong is irreversible. The more barbaric [the] treatment of Hong Kong people, [the] greater is their anger, and power of their potential resistance; [the] greater is the distrust of Beijing, of Hong Kong, [the] stricter is their rule to control. The vicious circle of suppression-anger-and-distrust eventually will turn Hong Kong into a prison, a cage, like Xinjiang. World, cry for Hong Kong people.”

He also expressed some guilt over the suffering of his jailed fellow executives, in particular the chief editor, Lo Wai Kong.

“It would be disingenuous to say that by creating Apple Daily I have put him in this situation,” he wrote. “But I do have a guilty feeling and want to share his price of his cross, which is weighing too heavily on him.”

A few months later he wrote to staff in Canada.

“There is always a price to pay when you put truth, justice and goodness ahead of your own comfort, safety and physical wellbeing, or your life becomes a lie,” he said.

“I choose truth instead of a lie and pay the price.”

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