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Hong Kong Government Snuffs Out More Media
Two more independent publications disappear, journalists increasingly worried
As China deepens its crackdown on Hong Kong, concern is rising over the danger not only to freedom of expression but to the individuals who practice it in the wake of the closure of two independent news media, Stand News and Citizen News, under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.
That follows by a few weeks the removal of memorials at various Hong Kong universities of Tiananmen massacre statues, and reports that individual reporters and common citizens have been roughed up by police. Others have been the targets of blistering comments in the Chinese press including by pro-Beijing papers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao along with activists and politicians.
Stand News was one thing, Citizen News another, and equally ominous. Police raided Stand News, arrested six reporters and editors (above) and confiscated the publication’s assets. But Citizen News was intimidated out of existence, with chief writer Chris Yeung Kin-hing telling local media it was impossible to know where the red lines were drawn following the Stand News crackdown.
Both publications had a substantial history of being crosswise with government officials. Citizen News was co-founded in 2017 by former Ming Pao editor in chief Kevin Lau Chun-to, who in 2014 was attacked by two assailants who ambushed him in a triad-style attack and stabbed him in the back and legs in an apparent effort to cut tendons and cripple him for life without killing him.
It was widely speculated that the attack may have been because Ming Pao participated in an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists into the offshore assets of several of China's leaders, including relatives of Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, former Premier Wen Jiabao and members of China’s National People’s Congress, although no official connection was ever made.
Co-founded with Lau by former Hong Kong Journalists Association head Daisy Li and 10 other journalists, Citizen News grew steadily in professionalism and influence to recruit staff from publications that increasingly were pulling back from aggressive journalism and was lauded for its responsible and aggressive reporting on issues.
“Sadly, we can no longer strive to turn our beliefs into reality without fear because of the sea change in the society over the past two years and the deteriorating media environment,” the publication said in a goodbye note published on Twitter. “We can’t work in a safe environment,” Chris Yeung said. “Reporters are also human and have their families and friends too. Journalists don’t want to be landed in this dilemma simply because of their work.”
The Chinese-language Stand News, a considerably more raucous nonprofit website, got its start in 2014, succeeding the most popular website in the territory, House News, which suddenly closed following a July 1 pro-democracy rally. Its founder, Tony Tsoi Tung-ho, “went missing” for a few days, often a euphemism for being collected up by gangland assailants believed to have been sent by the Chinese government. Tsoi reappeared to say he was “very scared” every time he crossed the border to the mainland. He later left Hong Kong for good, talking about “white terror,” a phrase usually used to describe political repression.
Stand News won its spurs with live streaming of on-the-ground coverage of 2019 protests that, according to critics, earned Hong Kong the stern gaze of Beijing and the implementation of the subsequent national security law that has strangled free expression in the city. It often demanded violent physical responses to what it considered government provocations.
Hong Kong’s security chief, John Lee, accused Stand News, whose employees were accused of sedition, of biased reporting although its supporters say it was a trusted source for reporting on topics that conventional Chinese language media have backed away from, especially following the decapitation and closure by National Security officials of the popular Apple Daily and the jailing and serial convictions of its owner and publisher Jimmy Lai, which continued last week with new charges. Lee denounced staff members as “rotten apples” and “evil elements” and accused them of exploiting their status as journalists to further political agendas.
The reaction from international journalism protection organizations and human rights NGOs was widespread and alarmed.
“Exactly six months after the dismantling of the Next Digital group and its flagship newspaper Apple Daily, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam once again shows her determination to terminate press freedom in the territory by eliminating Stand News in a similar fashion," said Cédric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) East Asia bureau head, who called for the release of all journalists and urged democracies “to act in line with their own values and obligations and defend what’s left of the free press in Hong Kong before China’s model of information control claims another victim.”
The Society of Publishers in Asia noted that both Stand News and Citizen News “have been recognized by their editorial peers for the journalistic quality of their work” and said it “regrets the closure of these media outlets, which follows the shut-down of Apple Daily, and notes with concern the rising pressures on independent local media following the introduction of the National Security Law in July 2020.”
The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) noted that Ronson Chan Ron-sing, the chairman of the HKJA and deputy assignment editor at Stand News, had been arrested as well, and expressed concern “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. HKJA urges the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law.”
None of that cut any ice with the Hong Kong government, which released a statement on the Stand News arrests, saying that “The law enforcement actions taken by the police against Stand News are strictly according to the law and based on evidence.”
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the release said, “are protected under the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. Article 4 of the Hong Kong National Security Law also stipulates that such rights and freedoms shall be protected in accordance with the law in safeguarding national security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. However, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such freedoms can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security. We reiterate that no one is above the law.”
It went on to warn “the governments, media and organizations of the United States and western countries in respect of their attempt to twist facts and slandering remarks on the enforcement actions taken in accordance with the law. Such acts constitute gross interference in the affairs of Hong Kong, and reflect their double standards. In the past year, people's lives have resumed as normal, and the national security risk has subsided. These achievements are hard to come by. We will continue to guard against any acts endangering national security, and will bring any person or entity violating the law to justice regardless of background.”
The government release did not point out that the “national security risk” on Hong Kong streets was the product of outraged reaction to the Beijing government’s refusal to live up to the promises of universal suffrage and autonomy outlined in the Basic Law promulgated in 1997 by the Chinese and British governments. In December, 70 percent of Hong Kong’s voters stayed home from rigged legislative council elections that the government sought to pass off as an exercise in democracy.
The comment warning media may well have been directed at the Wall Street Journal, which editorialized on the Stand News crackdown under the headline: “No one is Safe in Hong Kong” and said “China’s shredding of Hong Kong’s autonomy is reaching new levels of nastiness. This week authorities forced the closure of the online publication Stand News and levied new charges against Apple Daily executives.”
That prompted a riposte from both Lee, the chief security officer, who charged the Journal had misled readers over Hong Kong’s situation and should support the Stand News arrests if it was “genuinely interested in press freedom,” and justice secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who accused critics of acting “out of ignorance or with ulterior motives” and who maintained that the press’s freedom to operate “has always been well respected in Hong Kong.”