How China is tightening its grip on Hong Kong's media scene

Authorities last year raided the newsroom of the pro-democracy Apple Daily. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Since China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong a year ago, it has snuffed out protests, arrested key democracy activists and overhauled the election system. Now its vibrant media scene may be under threat.

While Hong Kong's Basic Law guarantees residents freedom of speech and the press, authorities have moved on a number of fronts to erode those "fundamental rights" in recent years. Hong Kong ranked 80th in Reporters Without Borders' latest press freedom index, down from No. 54 a decade ago.

The moves by the city's Beijing-appointed government have raised more questions about Hong Kong's viability as a financial hub, particularly because the definition of a national-security offence has expanded to include activities that had been legal for years in the former British colony. Some of them, like freezing assets and restricting public disclosure of key information, also directly threaten businesses.

"We are worried that we are moving towards the system on the mainland, where the media is part of the government's structure," said Mr Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. "In essence, the government expects the media to play a role in the so-called ruling machinery."

Hong Kong's government has denied the media is under pressure, saying in a recent statement that it is "firmly committed to protecting and respecting the freedom of the press". Here is a look at some ways media freedoms in the city are in question.

National security charges

Authorities last year raided the newsroom of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, the flagship newspaper of Jimmy Lai's Next Digital media company. Lai, already imprisoned over unauthorised protests, faces charges under the national security law that carry a maximum term of life in prison.

In mid-May, Hong Kong for the first time used the security law to freeze all of Lai's shares in Next Digital, as well as the local bank accounts of three companies owned by him.

State-run broadcaster China Central Television later said that Next Digital and Apple Daily were "a platform for incitement and a machine for the mobilisation of anti-China and trouble-making forces". "Doomsday," CCTV said, "is getting closer and closer" for them.

Beijing's media empire

China's government holds direct stakes in key publications in an expanding media empire. Last year Hong Kong's tycoons voiced their support for the security law in newspapers such as Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, both of which are controlled by Beijing.

Meanwhile, local reports have said China's top agency overseeing Hong Kong plans to set up a new department to handle propaganda affairs. One person told the South China Morning Post that the department's role would partly be to "manage the media scene" in both Hong Kong and Macau.

Chinese tycoons

Hong Kong activists are increasingly concerned that ownership of media outlets in the city by mainland companies or individuals will allow Beijing to influence the type of information residents can access.

The English-language South China Morning Post is held by Jack Ma's Alibaba Group Holding, and earlier this year Sing Tao News - one of the oldest Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong - was bought by the daughter of a Chinese tycoon. Representatives from both the South China Morning Post and Sing Tao News did not respond to a request for comment.

Mainland ownership of Hong Kong media outlets impacts how stories about China are told, said Ms Grace Leung, a lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong, adding that local residents would "seek alternative viewpoints from online media".

Public broadcaster overhaul

The city has reshaped the management of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong after some of its protest coverage was seen as tough on the government, raising concern that the editorial independence enshrined in its charter has been compromised.

In February, the government appointed Mr Patrick Li, a career civil servant with no media experience, as director of broadcasting. Since then, several programmes have been discontinued and the contract of a journalist who angered pro-Beijing politicians was not renewed.

Information control

Authorities have taken steps to restrict access to some public information, including with a proposal to restrict the public from accessing key details of company directors in a registry maintained by the government.

In April, freelance journalist Bao Choy was convicted and fined for making a false statement when she listed reasons for wanting to search official car ownership information as part of investigation into a gang attack during pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The prosecution of a reporter was rare for Hong Kong, and served to warn others they could face similar punishment for searches that were previously considered routine.

"The fact that a journalistic investigation could become a punishable offence highlights the extent of the recent decline in press freedom in Hong Kong," Mr Cedric Alviani, East Asia bureau head for Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement after Choy's conviction.

'Fake news' law

Police Commissioner Chris Tang in April warned that authorities would pursue prosecution "for those endangering Hong Kong's security using fake news".

That prompted the Foreign Correspondents' Club, Hong Kong, to write a letter to him expressing "serious concern" while noting that public figures around the world have used the term "fake news" to attack unfavourable coverage.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam in May raised the prospect that Hong Kong would pass a "fake news law", saying her administration was conducting research into how other nations are handling the "increasingly worrying trend of spreading inaccurate information, misinformation, hatred and lies on social media".

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