Censorship

Hong Kong's Free Press Is Dying

After Chinese authorities conducted newsroom raids and arrested top editors, pro-democracy publication Apple Daily realized it could no longer safely operate.

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When Hong Kong's national security law was passed in June 2020, the law's many critics warned it would have a chilling effect that would lead to the death of free speech, the suppression of a free press, and the censorship of people deemed disloyal by the state. These fears have been sadly vindicated with a newsroom raid last week that ended with the arrest of some of Hong Kong's top journalists and one of the last bastions of pro-democracy thought shuttering its doors permanently.

Last Thursday, hundreds of cops raided the offices of one of Hong Kong's most committed and widely read pro-democracy publications, Apple Daily, and arrested the editor in chief and other top executives, as well as those at the publication's parent company, Next Digital. When arrests continued yesterday and authorities arrested one of the paper's top opinion writers, the publication announced it would be closing immediately, citing staff safety concerns and the inability to pay salaries due to bank accounts being frozen.

"Apple Daily continued to report on the raid even as police officers declared the newsroom a crime scene," The New York Times' Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May wrote. "When officers prevented the reporters from livestreaming the raid from inside the office and forced them to leave, the paper set up a camera on the building's roof that watched the operation from a distance. Once they were allowed to return to their seats, reporters whose desktop computers had been seized wrote articles on their mobile phones instead."

"The Chinese Communist Party and its National Security Law clearly view being Chinese and being frank about the current political system to be mutually incompatible, and are currently aiming to force this foreign dishonesty and unfreedom on the city of Hong Kong in the name of 'return,'" wrote former Apple Daily columnist Kevin Carrico on his Substack. "The results are, not to mince words, tragic for many who persist in being honest, critical, and free."

"From the moment the national security law was introduced, we knew this day would come," said Apple Daily columnist Jack Hazlewood to the BBC. "It's close to a thousand journalists who have lost their jobs, and for them to find employment in media jobs, jobs in journalism in Hong Kong is next to impossible….Why would anyone in their right mind want to employ someone who worked for any organization that was being essentially shut down under the national security law, let alone a newspaper, let alone the flagship pro-democracy newspaper."

"We're seeing sort of a creeping extension of the Great Firewall and the censorship that you see in mainland China." But, he said, "people are savvy and VPN use is widespread."

"If people in Hong Kong want to access information that is critical of the government, they are going to be able to do so, even though we are descending into kind of an Orwellian, 1984 situation," said Hazlewood.

Still, Hazlewood tells Reason that he fears "remaining pro-democracy news outlets like Stand News and Citizen News will just get picked off one by one." 

Hong Kong, which has operated under the "one country, two systems" policy following Britain's handover of the territory to China, has long enjoyed a robust culture of free speech and due process. China's attempt to bring Hong Kong more tightly under its control has provoked widespread protests in the past few years, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people marching in the streets attempting to engage in mostly nonviolent resistance to preserve the freedoms they hold dear.

Earlier this year, I wrote:

"When a vague national security law was imposed in June, many Hongkongers feared it would give China cover to undermine the political freedoms they had long enjoyed. Since then, there have been steady, gradual encroachments: Public universities have culled dissident faculty members, police have arrested the pro-democracy media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, and protesters who attempted to flee by boat to Taiwan have been sentenced to prison."

Lai, it's worth noting, founded Apple Daily in 1995 and developed a reputation as an iconoclastic media mogul unafraid of criticizing the Chinese government. That his publication is practically forced to shutter is a sign of just how much Hong Kong's political freedoms have atrophied, crushed under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party.

More on Hongkongers' fight for freedom from Reason's Zach Weissmueller: