Hong Kong media outlet, broadcaster and artist quit city

Kacey Wong's departure is the latest blow to Hong Kong's reputation as a regional haven for the arts and free speech. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong online news outlet Initium announced it was relocating to Singapore on Tuesday (Aug 3) citing fading press freedoms, the first local media to quit the financial hub as authorities crack down on dissent.

The announcement came the same day that veteran broadcaster Steve Vines and Mr Kacey Wong, one of the city's best known political artists, also separately confirmed they had left Hong Kong because of declining freedoms.

"Over the past six years, the road to freedom has become tougher and more dangerous, the world is increasingly polarised and antagonistic," Initium's chief editor Susie Wu wrote in an article commemorating the outlet's sixth year anniversary.

She cited Hong Kong's steady slide down annual press freedom ranking lists and the rise of "little pinks" - staunch nationalists - in mainland China.

Initium is a comparatively small Chinese-language outlet with some 60,000 paying subscribers. But its departure illustrates the concerns many media outlets have about their future in Hong Kong, a city which was once a bastion of free speech in China.

A sweeping national security law imposed last year has criminalised much dissent and authorities have embarked on a campaign to root out those deemed unpatriotic.

Many of the city's most prominent pro-democracy activists have been arrested or jailed. Others have fled overseas.

On Tuesday, public broadcaster RTHK confirmed veteran host Vines had left for the UK, blaming what he said was "white terror sweeping through Hong Kong".

"The institutions that ensure the liberty of Hongkongers are being dismantled by people who care so little that they don't even flinch when it becomes abundantly clear that the very essence of the place is being destroyed," Mr Vines wrote in an email to colleagues, RTHK reported.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Wong, one of Hong Kong's best-known artists confirmed that he had moved to Taiwan in search of "100 per cent freedom" from the government's crackdown on dissent.

The 51-year-old, posted a black-and-white video on Facebook in which he sung a rendition of Vera Lynn's wistful ode We'll Meet Again.

"Leaving is not easy, staying is also difficult," he wrote.

In an interview with the Hong Kong Free Press website, Wong confirmed he had fled Hong Kong for political reasons, citing the diminishing space for artistic freedom since China imposed a national security law that criminalised much dissent.

The Cornell-educated artist is known for his contemporary visual arts focusing on social activism and politics.

In one 2018 performance art piece called The Patriot, Mr Wong performed China's national anthem on an accordion while inside a red metal cage.

Last year authorities passed new laws making it illegal to mock China's national anthem or flag, meaning any repeat of such a performance would be fraught with risk.

"I want and I demand 100 per cent freedom, with no compromise," Mr Wong told Hong Kong Free Press.

"I always appreciated Taiwan's culture and art, I think it's very mature and deep and the society is sophisticated and raw at the same time, which I like," he added.

Earlier this year, Mr Wong distributed hundreds of candle stubs from previous vigils marking Beijing's deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown after Hong Kong authorities banned public commemorations.

The arts have been heavily impacted by the security law, which was introduced to quash dissent after pro-democracy protests two years ago.

All films must now be censored for any content that breaches the law and multiple books have been pulled from shelves.

On Monday, Cantopop star Anthony Wong Yiu-ming was charged with corruption for singing at an election rally of a pro-democracy politician three years ago.

Two authors of a children's book that likened democracy supporters to sheep surrounded by wolves were charged with sedition last month.

Despite this, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam has insisted that freedom of speech remains intact in the city.

"I would honestly ask you, what sort of freedoms have we lost, what sort of vibrancy has Hong Kong been eroded?" she said in a radio show late last month.

Multiple international media companies, including AFP, have their regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted to the business-friendly regulations and free speech provisions written into the city's mini-constitution.

But many media outlets are questioning whether they have a future there.

The New York Times moved its Asia hub to South Korea after the law was enacted last year, and others have drawn up contingency plans.

Last month the Hong Kong Journalists Association said press freedoms were "in tatters".

The group cited the sudden closure of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily in June after its assets were frozen under the national security law.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.