In what was once considered a safe haven for domestic and foreign news organizations operating in the region, journalists and their sources are becoming increasingly cautious in order for China to occupy Hong Kong more tightly, it could be prosecuted.
Hong Kong has a unique position in the region, as it is home to the only free press in any area or territory administered by the Chinese government. But there are still no clear guidelines on what the new security law means for the city’s media community.
Experts like Sophie Richardson, China’s director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), believe that the legislation has no specifics.
“This law is so vague and excessive that it could potentially be applied to any kind of behavior or speech and that is exactly the goal of the Chinese government: It wants everyone to move and think. Oh, wait a minute, does it sit? Minute, is it?” is it a secret deal? ”Richardson said.
The unclear nature of the law will lead to self-censorship, which Beijing may just want, said Steven Butler, Asia’s director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“The Communist Party of China can achieve what it wants to achieve without ever having to enforce the law,” he said.
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam argued that this would not affect freedom of speech, enshrined in the city’s 1997 de facto constitution called the Basic Law. But the new law could replace such protections, Butler said.
Asked by CNN at a news conference on Wednesday whether people would be allowed to criticize the new law, Lam said: “If individuals, including CNN reporters, are fulfilling their role and feel something is wrong and want to criticize, then I don’t mean to see why that would be a violation under this law. “
But, she warned, “if there’s more, if you’re involved in organizing or negotiating, that’s another matter. It’s a matter of evidence and law.”
Freedom of the press in Hong Kong has come under heavy pressure in recent years, Butler said, adding that journalists covering protests in the city have been targeted by police.
For journalists who are Hong Kong citizens, the consequences of violating the new law could be dire. They can be tried behind closed doors and sentenced to life in prison. Those found guilty of participating in or aiding and abetting crimes can also face up to three to 10 years in prison.
The Hong Kong authorities have not provided any details on how the new media management executive committee will affect foreign journalists, who – unlike their counterparts in mainland China – do not require special journalist visas.
Then there are the sources and conversations, many of which are likely to be talk even more cautiously with the media – something journalists in mainland China are already struggling with, said Richardson of HRW.
Butler told the CPJ in recent days that sources and respondents had already asked reporters to delete previous articles or communications with sources that could be viewed as suspicious.
CNN, which has a large office in the city, spoke to sources who expressed reluctance to participate in the interviews. Within hours of passing the bill, sources demanded that past WhatsApp chats be deleted and expressed caution over citations in articles on the law.
“Test” cases are pending
Butler and Richardson said it was only a matter of time before there would be a “test case” where the journalist would be tried under the new law.
“I will not be surprised if some journalists stop being accused under this law at some point in the not-so-distant future,” Richardson said.
For now, journalistic organizations and advocates of press freedom can only try to lobby the Hong Kong government.
“Hong Kong has been a leader in supporting free press rights in Asia for decades, and it’s important that it continues, especially given the treatment of members of the independent press within mainland China and the global nature of the coronavirus. Pandemic,” a New York Times spokesman told CNN Business, adding that he is carefully monitoring the situation.
Butler said he hopes Hong Kong’s status as a financial center and an important Asian gateway for Western companies will protect its press freedoms.
“You can’t have an international financial center without freedom of speech and press,” he said.
– Jessie Yeung, Ivan Watson and James Griffiths contributed to this article.