By Rita Joshi

BONN (IDN) - The Fijian Prime Minister and incoming President of COP 23, Frank Bainimarama, has vowed to advance the work of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and "preserve the multilateral consensus for decisive action to address the underlying causes of climate change, respecting climate science."

Bainimarama made the pledge in an address to delegates at the start of the closing plenary of May 18 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn held some six months ahead of the 23rd annual session of parties to the UNFCCC.

- Photo: 2021

Dwindling Democracy and Press Freedom in Hong Kong

Viewpoint by Jan Servaes

Jan Servaes was Head of the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong (2013-2016). He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, the Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change

BRUSSELS (IDN) — History will tell whether the disbandment of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) on August 15 was the last nail in the coffin of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The CHRF was established in 2002 with the aim of giving a platform to different organizations to promote the development of human rights in Hong Kong.

The CHRF is the largest protest organization to disband in Hong Kong amid a sweeping crackdown from Beijing on dissent. A few days earlier, on August 10, also the professional teachers union announced its closure after successive articles in China’s state media targeted pro-democracy organizations.

This happened only one year after, on 30 June 2020, China’s top legislature unanimously passed a new National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong that entered into force in the territory the same day.  It marked the most significant shift in Hong Kong’s legal order since its “return” to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, which guaranteed its way of life, freedoms and independent legal system.

Amnesty International considers the National Security Law (NSL) “dangerously vague and broad: virtually anything could be deemed a threat to ‘national security’ under its provisions, and it can apply to anyone on the planet”. Therefore, “the law and its usage contravene international human rights laws and standards”.

For instance, only two days after the law was passed, the Hong Kong government declared that “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times”, a common political slogan during the protests, “connotes Hong Kong independence”, or separating Hong Kong from China, and effectively forbade its use.

The 24-year-old former waiter Tong Ying-kit was the first person to be convicted under this controversial national security law. He was accused of driving his motorcycle into three riot police while carrying a flag with the above protest slogan. He was sentenced to nine years in prison for terrorist activities and inciting secession.

In the name of national security, the law outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion. The NSL gave the Chinese central and Hong Kong governments new expansive powers to oversee and manage schools, social organizations, media and the internet in this Special Administrative Region of 7,3 million inhabitants.  

A recent panel discussion on democracy and media freedom, hosted by the Schools of Communication of Hong Kong Baptist University and Chinese University of Hong Kong, sought to understand the fundamental shifts in Hong Kong’s media environment.

The roundtable put the tumultuous events of recent months in a broader political and global context and reflected on how journalists and their audiences might adapt to the new media reality in an ‘unfree’ Hong Kong.

Press freedom at all-time low

The Hong Kong Press Freedom Index 2020, released by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), clearly shows that the index for journalists has reached an all-time low. According to the HKJA, the reason for the decline is that “journalists are more cautious than ever when they criticize the HKSAR Government and the Central Government, and managements have put more pressure on them.”

The forced closure of Apple Daily

Apple Daily founder, editor-in-chief and publisher Jimmy Lai was arrested in August 2020 and charged with fraud. On the same day, the popular newspaper’s premises were raided by more than 200 police officers.

In December 2020, Jimmy Lai was charged with ‘conspiracy’ under the NSL. In April-May 2021, he was convicted by district courts and sentenced to a total of 20 months in prison for his role in three unauthorized protest events during the 2019 riots. In May 2021, Lai’s bank accounts were frozen.

In June 2021, also editor-in-chief Ryan Law Wai-kwong and publisher Cheung Kim-hung were arrested and charged. Police held them responsible for Apple Daily articles that according to the police “played a very crucial role in the conspiracy that supplied ammunition for foreign countries”.

All of this resulted in the forced closure of the Apple Daily on June 24, 2021.

Public broadcaster RTHK under fire

In February 2020, the government released a 85-page report criticizing Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) for its weak editorial responsibility and failure to honor its charter as a government department.

It announced that veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing would end his term as Director of Broadcasting ahead of schedule and be replaced by Patrick Li Pak-chuen, a senior official with no media experience. Li took over in May 2020. The Civil Service Minister said Li was a “seasoned administrative officer with proven leadership and management skills”.

Patrick Li, the new editor-in-chief, blocked and suspended several programs on the grounds of failing to meet required standards of balance, objectivity and impartiality.

Veteran Hong Kong journalist and commentator Steve Vines announced early August he leaves RTHK’s Wednesday morning radio program Backchat after RTHK’s English TV program The Pulse, which he hosts, was axed.

“We happen to be discussing the first anniversary of the national security law today. It seems to me that for somebody who is more critical, the time to remain at RTHK has ended, so with great regret, but reflecting great pleasure over the years, I’d better go,” Vines said.

Restrictions for foreign correspondents

Foreign journalists face delays in processing their visas. In October 2020, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said foreign journalists experienced “very unusual” delays in renewing or obtaining visas. Journalists suspected a link to the diplomatic spat between China and the United States.

The government replied that there had been no change in visa procedures. In July 2020, Hong Kong refused to grant a work permit to New York Times China correspondent Chris Buckley. As a result, the NYT relocated some of its operations from Hong Kong to Seoul.

Disciplining Citizen/Student Reporters

The police are tightening the rules for media accreditation. In September 2020, the police announced a tightening of its definition of “media representatives” to exclude “self-declared” journalists from press conferences and restricted areas.

The change affected many freelancers, even if they held membership cards issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association or the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association. Many unregistered online media and student media were also affected.

In a joint statement, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and seven other journalist organisations said the police move contravened Article 27 of the Basic Law, which guaranteed press freedom.

Threats to Media Security

Global news channel Epoch Times is linked to the spiritual group Falun Gong, which is banned on the mainland. In April 2020, the printing press was stormed by four masked men with sledgehammers. They destroyed equipment, made machines useless with concrete rubble and intimidated workers.

After repairs, Epoch Times continued to print the Hong Kong edition, which is distributed in public places around the city. No arrests were made in either case. In May 2020, a man hit an Epoch Times reporter with a baseball bat outside her home.

The World Press Photo Exhibition 2020 was to be hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University in March 2021. The presentation of more than 150 winning images covered a handful of the Hong Kong protests.

Following complaints in pro-Beijing propaganda outlets, the university canceled the event four days before it was due to open, citing concerns for “campus safety and security”. The organizers found an alternative location. The opening was not announced in advance and the exhibition ran without incident.

Restrictions on Corporate Reporting

Government rolls out plan to restrict access to company registry data. Citing the need to protect personal data, the government announced tightening restrictions on viewing information in the commercial register. Residential addresses and identification numbers of directors of registered companies would no longer be accessible. Investigative reporters have used such data to expose corporate malpractice, including corruption, and misconduct by officials.

Restriction of Radical Websites

Police order internet providers to block protest website. HKChronicles, an information-sharing site that operated as a doxxing platform, revealed personal information about both the police and pro-Beijing supporters.

In January 2021, the police ordered Hong Kong Internet Service Providers to block the website, citing Article 43 of the NSL and its Implementing Rule 4, which allows the blocking of access to electronic content that is likely to constitute a criminal offense or if national security is endangered.

The chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association said that while police had previously asked providers to remove individual posts or content, such as those related to criminal activity, privacy violation or doxxing, “it is rare to target the entire website”.


As more and more pro-democracy Hongkongers get arrested and sentenced under the national security law, many are (considering) leaving. The exodus from Hong Kong is very real. Estimates put the number of Hongkongers departing the city at 1000 a day. Official data state that 90,000 people left Hong Kong in the past year. It marks the city’s biggest population decrease in 60 years.

Unlike other countries where people look at emigration as a route for better education or job prospects, in Hong Kong, the desire to move abroad is fueled mainly by the political unrest and the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong.

Previous waves of emigration followed the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, and in the run-up to the 1997 handover. Then, many Hongkongers who left eventually returned, some because of difficulty in adjusting and hardships.

Yet, this time, those who leave may not return any time soon. Push factors range from the seismic political changes and transformed social norms in Hong Kong, to dimming prospects and economic woes – in a city with sky-high property prices and a dearth of industrial diversification – and resentment of both the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities.

Even if some people are quitting the city on an impulse, it does not render their departure any less dramatic and worrying. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 August 2021]

Image: Student-drawn cartoon on the Lennon wall during the Umbrella revolution of 2014 (Credit: Jan Servaes)

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