Once a bastion of press freedom, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China has seen an unprecedented setback since 2020 when Beijing adopted a National Security Law aimed at silencing independent voices.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has a vibrant media environment with hundreds of publications and over 15 TV stations. Since the 1997 handover to China, most media have fallen under the control of the government or pro-China groups. In 2021, two major independent news outlets, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forcefully shut down. More than five other independent media outlets chose to shut down, citing risk concerns, while diasporic media outlets are being established around the world.
The Hong Kong government takes orders directly from Beijing and openly supports its attempts to impose censorship and spread propaganda. Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), previously renowned for its fearless investigations, has been placed under a pro-government management which does not hesitate to censor the programmes it dislikes.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law enshrines “freedom of speech, of the press and of publication”. The National Security Law, however, serves as a pretext to gag independent voices in the name of the fight against “terrorism”, “secession”, “subversion”, and “collusion with foreign forces”. Due to its ambiguous phrasing, the law looks like it could apply to any journalist covering Hong Kong, regardless of their location. Sedition laws are also widely used to target journalists.
Most large-scale media outlets are owned by pro-Beijing factions and the remaining independent media owners are confronted with political pressure. In 2021, the government froze the assets of Apple Daily and Stand News, forcing them to cease operations and causing the unemployment of 860 of their staff.
Journalists in Hong Kong are de facto separated into two groups, namely those who work for local Chinese-language media and those who work for English-language or international media. Journalists who work for independent or pro-democracy media are generally regarded highly by the public, while those who work for pro-Beijing newspapers or TV stations are viewed more negatively.
Hong Kong used to be a very safe place for journalists until 2014, when those who covered the Umbrella Movement were targeted by the police and pro-Beijing factions. During the 2019 protests, hundreds of journalists were victims of police violence and were also detained and indicted. A new wave of arrests started in 2021, when a dozen journalists were detained for national security crimes.