Hong Kong media crackdown portends tough 2022 for free press

The collapse of Hong Kong’s last major pro-democracy news outlet, Stand News, is crowning one of the world’s most dramatic press freedom cuts this year.

From the shutdown of Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper in July to the raid, arrests and asset seizures that precipitated the shutdown of Stand News on Wednesday, the global financial hub has grown from one of the freest media markets in the world. Asia to one of the most regulated. In addition to employing a national security law that provides for sentences of up to life in prison, authorities in Hong Kong have started indicting journalists and internet users under a government sedition law. colonial era that can imprison a writer for up to two years.

While the Hong Kong crackdown is unique to events in the former British colony, where Beijing is eager to prevent the return of the mass democracy protests of two years ago, similar changes have been seen across the world in 2021. Upheaval and emboldened by former US President Donald Trump’s campaign against “fake news” – appear poised to take further steps to silence critical coverage in the year to come.

In China, journalist Zhang Zhan is said to be close to death amid a hunger strike to protest her four-year prison term for covering COVID-19. Twitter Inc. employees who failed to remove accounts criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government have faced legal action in India, the world’s largest democracy. In Russia, authorities this month targeted two human rights groups to shut down, including one that tracks political prisoners. Iran, Egypt and Zimbabwe have all acted to weaken journalists’ ability to report on the reality of the pandemic.

Journalism has been totally or partially blocked in nearly three-quarters of the 180 countries listed in the latest survey by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders. The group found that 488 journalists were in prison, a record since they began compiling figures in 1995.

“Press freedom is on the decline,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Center for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong and chairman of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. “Trump has helped create fake news echo chambers, where anything that criticizes you is bogus.”

“What is happening in Hong Kong is part of a fallback pattern,” he added. “The number of countries where the press is truly free is getting smaller and smaller. Countries are lip service to the idea of ​​press freedom without actually putting it into practice. “

The past year has brought efforts to stop the trend. US President Joe Biden tried to dispel doubts raised by his predecessor with a world summit on democracy, and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Filipino and Russian journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. Still, the outlook for 2022 remains bleak.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov in Oslo on December 10 | AFP-JIJI

The withdrawal of Stand News was more than a blow to local opposition. It marked the erasure of an influential organ of civic debate. The online platform founded in 2014 had investigated poor working conditions and city officials receiving gift baskets from embattled real estate developer China Evergrande Group in recent months.

The shutdown was the latest of several shocks since China imposed the National Security Law in June 2020 and began cracking down on civilian institutions in Hong Kong where Communist Party critics once thrived. Over the past 12 months, some of the city’s largest unions have been dissolved, international non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International have left the city, and a new legislature has been elected under a system that has vetted candidates for their election. loyalty to the ruling party. More than 160 people have now been arrested by the local national security department.

Chinese officials have dismissed criticism from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and others, denying that the arrests of journalists erode press freedom. “Some outside forces have repeatedly attacked press freedom in Hong Kong to create what is called the chilling effect,” the Hong Kong branch of China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. “Supporting press freedom is only their excuse, and their real aim is to disrupt the stability and good governance of Hong Kong. “

As the city nears 25 years of Chinese rule – half of Beijing’s promise to leave the city’s basic policies “unchanged for 50 years” – its system increasingly resembles that on the other side of China. the border. China jailed at least 127 journalists in 2021, more than any other country in the world. Bloomberg News member Haze Fan, who was taken from her apartment in Beijing in December 2020 by national security agents, remains in detention.

“China seeks to promote the idea that human rights, including freedom of the press and the right to information, are not universal, that each country could make its own definition,” said Cedric Alviani, director of the East Asia office of Reporters Without Borders. “This idea totally contradicts the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and poses a threat to democracy around the world.

In Russia, where 58 journalists have been killed over the past 29 years, the government also ended the year by cutting off civil society.

Police officers in front of a building housing the offices of online media Stand News during a raid in Hong Kong on Wednesday.  |  BLOOMBERG
Police officers in front of a building housing the offices of online media Stand News during a raid in Hong Kong on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG

On December 29, a Moscow court ordered the closure of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which tracks political prisoners. The day before, Russian officials had demanded the closure of the human rights organization Memorial International on the grounds that the group had not qualified the documents as works of “foreign agents”. The secretary general of the International Federation of Journalists, Anthony Bellanger, said in a statement that the decision “sets a dangerous precedent in an increasingly repressive environment”.

On December 27, a Russian journalist who had criticized Putin and suggested the country was heading towards civil war was found dead on the streets after falling from his apartment window.

In Turkey, concerns about press freedom range from jailed journalists to the government’s tightening grip on social media to muzzling critics. Dozens of people have faced criminal charges for commenting on everything from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s health to the wildfires that hit the country last summer as well as the government’s handling of the pandemic and most recently the state of the weakening economy.

At least 24 journalists were killed as a direct result of their work in 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least nine journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, including two who were attacked in their homes on November 1. CPJ said three of the deaths in Mexico were linked to the work of journalists. In Myanmar, where more than 80 journalists were arrested for documenting protests against the February military coup, a freelance photojournalist died in military custody this month after being arrested for doing his job.

“Overall the climate has deteriorated and this matches the general decline of liberal democracy,” said Gypsy Guillen Kaiser, director of advocacy and communications at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Legislation that suppresses access to information, as well as general public mistrust and animosity, are among the main obstacles affecting the ability of journalists to do their jobs. “

In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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