Hong Kong Journalists Union Says Press Freedom “in ruins”

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Hong Kong (AFP)

Hong Kong’s press freedom is “in tatters” as China reshapes what was once a business center in its own authoritarian image, the city’s premier journalists union said Thursday, adding it feared fake news laws were on the way.

“Last year is definitely the worst year ever for press freedom,” said Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA), when the union released its annual report.

The report pointed to a cascade of events affecting the press since China passed a comprehensive national security law on Hong Kong last summer to stamp out dissent after huge and often violent democracy protests the previous year.

The authors pointed to the imprisonment of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the freeze on the assets of his Apple Daily newspaper – a move that led to the closure of the Beijing-critical tabloid.

More than 700 journalists have left their jobs while Lai and several Apple Daily executives are currently behind bars for attempting to undermine China’s national security with the content of the newspaper’s coverage.

The HKJA report also accused the authorities of turning the city’s public service broadcaster, RTHK, into “a government propaganda machine” by firing critical staff and canceling topical issues.

Access to public databases is also becoming more difficult, the report warned, highlighting how an RTHK journalist was convicted for using license plates in an investigation into a violent attack on democracy supporters by allegiance to the government.

The government has also tried to prevent journalists from accessing company owners’ identities on the city’s register, a move criticized by financial transparency groups.

“The repression by the authorities can be felt in various media,” warned the report. “Freedoms have seriously deteriorated under a repressive government.”

Chan said he was concerned that more laws were now being worked on to restrict the media.

Senior officials and pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong have called for “fake news” laws, something activists fear it could be used against the reluctance of news coverage agencies.

“There are already a lot of knives hanging over journalists’ heads, such as anti-sedition and incitement laws, so we don’t need another one called the fake news law,” Chan said.

Hong Kong has fallen from 18th in 2002 to 80th this year in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom ranking.

Mainland China ranks 177th out of 180, ahead of Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

Several international media companies have their regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted by the business-friendly rules and freedom of expression regulations incorporated into the city’s mini-constitution.

But many local and international outlets are wondering whether they have a future there.



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