Will Hong Kong’s Free Media Be Banned? – How The Crackdown on Free Speech in the Former British Colony Is Intensifying

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In 2015 Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee (林榮基), the founder of “Causeway Bay Books,” known for its salacious books critical of the Chinese Communist leadership, was detained by mainland China’s Customs officers in the city of Shenzhen. After he was taken onto a 7-seater car and driven to a police station, he was interrogated by officers of the Central Task Force, who accused him of intending to overthrow the Chinese government by sending prohibited books to mainland China.

Lam was held in detention for eight months, five of which he spent in a small room, monitored around the clock. He was forced to sign letters of confession and remorse for “selling books illegally,” and to sign a document giving up his right to hire a lawyer and contact his family. He was frequently interrogated. He began to contemplate suicide. “I was looking for a place up there to hang myself… but there wasn’t,” he said.

On 14 June 2016 he was released on bail and taken back to his native Hong Kong on the condition that he returned to mainland China to hand over a hard disk with the names of people he had sold books to.

However, he violated the bail terms. On June 16 he held a press conference accompanied by Albert Ho Chun-yan of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, and told reporters what had happened to him.

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On 25 April 2019, Lam left Hong Kong and moved to Taiwan. One year later, thanks to crowdfunding from supporters, he reopened his bookstore in Taiwan.

From afar he has watched Hong Kong being taken over by the Chinese Communist regime after Beijing passed a National Security Law (NSL) that curtails the freedoms and civil liberties the former British colony had hitherto enjoyed.

On 16 April 2021 nine Hong Kong activists and lawmakers were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 months because of their participation in anti-government protests in 2019. Among them were media tycoon and owner of the popular news outlet Apple Daily Jimmy Lai as well as lawyers and veteran activists Margaret Ng and Martin Lee.

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On the same day an Apple Daily reporter went to interview Lam Wing-kee in his new bookstore in Taiwan.

“The Chinese government will do anything to protect its power,” Lam said. “Hong Kong is no longer the democratic and free Hong Kong of the past. The Hong Kong people know really need to prepare psychologically, they should not think about the Hong Kong of the past, because that Hong Kong is not coming back.”

Lam also argued that Jimmy Lai “might be locked up forever” because there are still serious pending charges against him under the NSL, and that Apple Daily in Hong Kong might disappear altogether.

Indeed, the Hong Kong authorities and Beijing state media seem to be setting the stage for a full-scale crackdown on the free press.

An article published on April 16 on the Beijing-owned newspaper Ta Kung Pao called on the Hong Kong government to outright outlaw Apple Daily for violating the NSL.

“Some media are still using their identity as the so-called ‘fourth estate’ to collude with foreign forces, incite violence and fabricate falsehoods, and challenge the NSL,” the piece said. “Among them, Apple Daily has played the most disgusting and reckless role.”

Ta Kung Pao accuses Apple Daily of being illegal propaganda, citing as an example an April 15 Apple Daily report on a billboard campaign launched in Britain by the pro-democracy Stand With Hong Kong organization.

“This is no longer reporting, but rather political propaganda, ‘Hong Kong independence’ propaganda, which is suspected of violating the NSL,” the Ta Kung Pao article claimed.

Apple Daily is an anti-China, anti-government newspaper, its purpose is to be a public platform for foreign anti-China forces (外國反華勢力), to stir up trouble in Hong Kong.”

The article falsely claims that “such a newspaper, whose sole mission is to be anti-government, would not be allowed anywhere in the world, just like the United States would not allow the existence of a newspaper whose purpose is to ‘split the federal government'”.

Apple Daily has become a loophole in the NSL. If we do not get rid of Apple Daily, the Hong Kong NSL will still have a loophole. Banning in accordance with the law Apple Daily and other newspapers promoting violence and independence and challenging the NSL can brook no delay,” the article concludes.

Accusing pro-democracy forces of being violent or seeking independence has become a catch-all phrase to persecute people critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Freedom of speech in Hong Kong is guaranteed by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, which protected free speech as practiced during the colonial era. But the NSL allows Beijing to arbitrarily infringe upon freedom of speech to punish opponents and critics.

On April 16 Hong Kong Commissioner of Police Chris Tang said that media outlets that endanger the security of Hong Kong by publishing “fake news” will be investigated. As an example he mentioned photographs of children with toy guns during National Security Education Day, which Apple Daily contrasted with pictures of armed police attacking protesters in 2019.

“Agents of foreign forces disseminate fake news and disinformation to drive a wedge in the community, cause division in society and to incite violence,” he stated.

In the World Press Freedom index, Hong Kong dropped from 39th place in 2005 to 80th place in 2020.


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