Hong Kong drops to new low in World Press Freedom Index as Jimmy Lai goes on trial — Radio Free Asia

Hong Kong has fallen to 148th place on a global press freedom index, as city authorities sued the now-shutdown pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily for “fraud”.

Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the city’s fall of 68 places in the index was the biggest of the year and comes amid an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy media under a draconian national security law imposed by Beijing. from July 1, 2020.

“It is the biggest fall of the year, but it is fully deserved due to the constant attacks on press freedom and the slow disappearance of the rule of law in Hong Kong,” said the Agence France-Presse the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau, Cédric Alviani as said.

“Over the past year, we have seen drastic action against journalists,” he added.

The national security law was first used to target political opponents of the government, but then transferred its power to independent media, forcing the closure of Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily, parent company Next Media and Booth News.

“Once a bastion of press freedom, [Hong Kong] suffered an unprecedented setback since 2020, when Beijing passed a national security law aimed at silencing independent voices,” reads RSF’s Hong Kong article.

“Since the handover to China in 1997, most of the media has fallen under the control of the government or pro-China groups,” he said. “In 2021, two major independent news outlets, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forcibly shut down while many smaller-scale outlets went out of business, citing legal risks.”

He said the Hong Kong government now takes orders directly from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing and openly supports its propaganda effort.

“Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), once renowned for its fearless investigations, has been placed under pro-government management that doesn’t hesitate to censor programs it doesn’t like,” RSF said.

Despite promises of freedom of speech, press and publication made as part of the transfer to Chinese rule, the national security law could be used to target any journalist reporting on Hong Kong from anywhere in the world. the world, he warned.

Jailed media mogul

As the RSF Index was released on World Press Freedom Day, Lai – who is currently serving a prison sentence for taking part in peaceful protests and is awaiting trial under the national security for “collusion with a foreign power” – and former Next Media member administrative director Wong Wai-keung was in court facing two charges of “fraud” related to the use of Next Media’s headquarters by a company of advice.

Lai is accused of violating the terms of the building’s lease and hiding the violation from the landlord, Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, for two decades.

Lai, 74, appeared in court on the first day of the trial wearing headphones, leaning back with his eyes closed, appearing in high spirits as he blew his wife a kiss.

Lai’s legal team led by Caoilfhionn Gallagher at Doughty Street Chambers filed an urgent appeal to the United Nations for ‘legal harassment’ against him in April, claiming he had been imprisoned simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly and the right to peaceful life. expression.

His lawyers say he has been repeatedly targeted by Hong Kong authorities with a ‘dam’ of court cases, including four separate criminal prosecutions stemming from his presence and participation in various protests in Hong Kong between 2019 and 2020, the most recent of which concerns his participation in a vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing, for which he was sentenced to 13 months in prison.

He is currently serving concurrent prison terms in connection with the four protest cases, pending trial for “collusion with foreign powers” and “sedition” in relation to editorials in Apple Daily.

New Press Host Award

Meanwhile, a US university said it would take over hosting the Human Rights Press Awards after the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) withdrew from the event, citing legal risks under the Privacy Act. national security.

The awards will now be administered by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

“Recognizing outstanding reporting on human rights issues is more important today than ever, given the many – and growing – threats to press freedom around the world,” Dean Battinto Batts said in a statement posted on the school’s website.

A former Stand News reporter, who only gave the pseudonym Miss Chan, said she was told she would win an award this year.

She said relocating awards overseas has not necessarily helped reporters in Hong Kong, however.

“If the awards can be made overseas, I think Hong Kong journalists will be more worried about whether they should enter the competition or serve as judges, as they could be accused of collusion with foreign forces or incitement, etc.” Chan said. mentioned.

“The situation in Hong Kong is moving too fast and it is likely to get worse, so I don’t know if I still have the courage to participate,” she said.

A former winner who only gave Mr Cheung’s pseudonym said the move was better than nothing.

“Naturally, something is better than nothing, and there’s encouragement in that,” Cheung said. “But the Human Rights Press Award can no longer exist in Hong Kong before the huge retrograde steps being taken there on human rights.”

“Hong Kong journalists knew they could report on human rights issues in Hong Kong, China or elsewhere in the region,” he said. “Now there’s no more room [for that].”

Former Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) journalist To Yiu-ming said the awards served as a guide for press freedom in the city.

“[They] served as a benchmark for press freedom in Hong Kong, and also a bulwark protecting certain press freedoms,” To told RFA. “Their disintegration is also the disintegration of another pillar of Hong Kong society. [former] freedoms.”

He said it was entirely possible that journalists in Hong Kong would limit participation in such competitions in the future, to avoid being targeted by the authorities.

Relocated press corps

Many former members of Hong Kong’s press have already moved on, changing jobs and countries in an effort to escape the repercussions of the new regime.

“I’ve been here for three months,” former Ming Pao reporter Leung Ming-hung told RFA in the northern English city of Manchester. “I now work as a freelance traffic cop. It’s my job to give out parking tickets.”

“The job isn’t hard and the pay isn’t bad, but I feel like the job is…completely meaningless compared to my previous life,” Leung said. “I have the impression that I no longer have a purpose in life: I manage.”

Leung said he left Hong Kong after authorities began targeting people under the national security law.

“I didn’t expect that after I arrived here, my emotional state would be even worse than when I was in Hong Kong,” he said. “I wasn’t able to turn off who I was in Hong Kong…for example, when the bank robbery happened yesterday, I kept thinking about how I was going to pull it off .”

“I have so much nostalgia left for Hong Kong, it’s like I couldn’t leave [that life] rear.”

Leung said he believed press freedom in Hong Kong would continue to deteriorate.

“The government is already talking … about a fake news law, so there will be a lot of things that you can’t report on, or that will have consequences if you report them,” he said. declared.

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