National security law: constrained freedoms, compromised sources among worries confronting HK media sector

04-Jul-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong’s new national security law, with its vaguely defined offences and sweeping new powers for police and mainland agents, poses a threat to press freedom in the city, local media figures and scholars have said.

They also warned that under Article 9 of the new legislation, local authorities are granted supervisory powers over the local media industry, a field previously free of control and fiercely protected under the Basic Law.

Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said on Thursday that he worried local journalists could be prosecuted when reporting on issues thought to be related to national security.

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“Under the categories of crimes of secession, subversion, and terrorism, there are references saying that any incitement or advocation of those crimes is also liable to punishment under the law,” he said.

“So are media reports considered an act of endangering national safety, and will the publication of certain interviews and articles be deemed problematic?

“When the red line is unclear and moving according to political needs, media organisations may self-censor on some sensitive topics and refrain from interviewing those who are criticised by state media,” the veteran journalist added.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club came under fire in 2018 when it hosted a talk by Andy Chan Ho-tin, leader of the now-banned, pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. The head of public broadcaster RTHK at the time told staff not to live stream Chan’s speech to avoid being used as a platform for independence advocacy, though other media reported the event.

When journalistic materials are needed for investigation, the newsroom could be charged if they withhold the information. The press can no longer protect their news sources

Lawmaker Claudia Mo, a former journalist

Victor Mallet, the Financial Times editor who moderated the talk, had his visa renewal rejected shortly thereafter, though the Immigration Department refused to explain its decision.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor did not answer when asked if journalists would be breaking the law by interviewing independence advocates.

Yeung also pointed to the new powers the law has granted to police, and voiced concern that reporters might be ordered to turn over material collected from sources, as the security law would override current protections afforded journalistic materials.

Article 43 of the new law states that police, when handling cases concerning offences endangering national security, may conduct warrantless searches of premises and electronic devices while seeking evidence.

Law enforcement officers can also tap phones and intercept electronic communications with the chief executive’s approval, require a person who has published information online to delete the information, and compel those in possession of materials relevant to an investigation to answer questions.

Opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, a former journalist, said the law presented a fundamental challenge to press freedom.

“When journalistic materials are needed for investigation, the newsroom could be charged if they withhold the information,” Mo said. “The press can no longer protect their news sources.”

Mo said while national security laws in Western countries generally respect the public’s right to know and media companies are able to defend themselves on those grounds, there are no such safeguards built into the new law passed by Beijing’s top legislative body on June 30.

Hong Kong media companies have previously found themselves in hot water when touching on the issue of Taiwan independence.

In April, RTHK was accused of breaching the “one-China principle” by the city’s commerce minister after a reporter pressed a World Health Organization official on whether the body would accept Taiwan as a member.

In 2000, after local TV station i-Cable broadcast an interview with then-Taiwanese vice-president Annette Lu Hsiu-lien, a member of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, Beijing’s liaison office in the city cautioned a group of media executives that they had a responsibility to safeguard national security.

Clement So York-kee, professor of the School of Journalism & Communication at Chinese University, said while he believed the red line on Taiwan independence was relatively clear, it remained uncertain what would constitute collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.

“Is it fine for the media to report on how foreign politicians criticise the central government?” So asked, saying press freedom would undoubtedly be affected under the new law.

Another focal point of media concern lies in the potential for future regulation.

Article 9 of the security law says the Hong Kong government shall take necessary measures to “strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation” over matters concerning national security, including those relating to “schools, universities, social organisations, the media and the internet”.

Article 54 of the law further states that a mainland agency to be set up in the city would be duty-bound to supervise international organisations including non-governmental groups and news agencies.

To Yeung, the regulation seemed to be paving the way for greater control, as pro-Beijing politicians have previously proposed greater controls over online media, a law banning “fake news” and a tightening of visa arrangements for foreign journalists.

Senior staff at Hong Kong’s non-governmental organisations were no less worried.

A senior executive of an international INGO operating in Hong Kong said the lack of predictability was disturbing for groups working in the city.

“Would an INGO’s efforts in lobbying against a government bill be seen as an attempt to disrupt the performance of duties by the Hong Kong government?” the executive asked, expressing concern that police or mainland agents could knock on their doors and approach their staff.

Barrister Billy Li On-yin, convenor of the Progressive Lawyers’ Group, warned that the definition of “advocation”could also land media into trouble.

Article 27 of the national security law covers those who “advocate terrorism” or “incite the commission of terrorist activity”.

“For those media [outlets] who uphold a pro-democracy stance and report rather one-sidedly, would they be in breach of the law?” Li asked.

“I am rather worried for the industry, and think the authorities should better clarify.”

But former Bar Association chair Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who sits on Carrie Lam’s Executive Council, brushed aside concerns that the media would easily step on the freshly drawn red lines.

“If there is no intention to incite and advocate acts that endanger national security, I can’t see they would be in breach of the law,” the senior counsel said.


Category: Hong Kong

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