Last year, pro-democracy protests flooded the streets of Hong Kong and the world heard their cries for help to get the message out in the world with #StandWithHongKong. Today, the hashtag is resurfacing again following the recent arrest of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam signifying the crumbling freedom of speech in the country. Worse, media freedom is also eroding with journalists warned with the risk of operating in Hong Kong. The situation is worsened by the imposition of a “vaguely defined” national security law by Beijing.
Prominent leader of Hong Kong democracy activism Joshua Wong along with fellow campaigners Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly during last year’s mass protests. In a statement to gathered reporters at the court, Wong said, “We three have decided to plead guilty to all charges. It will not be surprising if I am sent to immediate detention today.”
He also added, “We will continue to fight for freedom – and now is not the time for us to kowtow to Beijing and surrender.”
Their arrest sparked a series of tweets supporting them resurging the hashtag into international trends. The platform has been Hongkongers main medium in creating attention with what’s happening inside and the political turmoil is still boiling at the expense of Hong Kong’s democracy. In a video by Reuters Hong Kong correspondent Jessie Pang, dozens of supporters were chanting, “Hang in there! Take care of yourself!”
China continues its tightening grip to Hong Kong. In a report by Iain Marlow of Bloomberg, top diplomats are also saying that media freedom is under attack. In an opinion piece written by consuls general Jeff Nankivell, Andrew Heyn, Hanscom Smith, and Elizabeth Ward published in the South China Morning Post, they talked about the threats against journalists that are happening worldwide especially in Hong Kong and called to defend media freedom. They said that “barriers to information access should be rightly viewed as attacks on human rights themselves.”
They warned journalists in Hong Kong who have been doing media coverage since the protests started last June. “Hong Kong is a vibrant international city but media freedom here is under attack,” they wrote. “The many cases of violence against media during the civil unrest last year were the starkest examples of a years-long downward trend marked also by the expulsion of foreign journalists, increasing restrictions on media access, and harassment and demonization by political actors.”
“Media freedom serves a fundamental public interest,” they said. It provides information crucial for good governance and acts as a powerful tool to hold officials accountable and maintain open and stable societies. But the global climate on press freedom has worsened over the years, the very image reflected in Hong Kong today.
They also expressed the damaging consequence of these media attacks. “Attacks on media freedom can ripple throughout societies, decreasing trust, prosperity and resilience, while increasing corruption and public disorder.” Especially during this time of pandemic where there is an unprecedented “infodemic” or misleading information regarding COVID-19, the role of press freedom is equally important and heavily burdened in providing access to accurate information.
The media freedom in Hong Kong is not only particularly threatened by the global cases of impunity attacks towards journalists but also the “sweeping security legislation” as noted by Marlow which “bars subversion, terrorism, secession and foreign collusion” imposed by Beijing. This new legislation unveiled last May is partially equivalent to the law withdrawn in 2003. This is enacted by the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress rather than by the Hong Kong Legislative Council which attracted controversy.
This is expected “to circumvent Hong Kong’s own law-making processes – leading to accusations that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy,” according to Helier Cheung and Roland Hughes of BBC News. This is despite Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China with the “one country, two systems” and its supposed press freedom.
The legislation has also manifested its chilling effect on free speech in the city with some protesters arrested for merely holding up banners that advocate revolution and independence. One of the first high profile and major arrests following the implementation last June 30 was pro-democracy activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Under the security law, the offices of his flagship Apple Daily newspaper were raided in an alleged foreign collusion, a move that was condemned by the UK and sent fear over the community on the future of press freedom in the country.
Lai has not been charged but he was held for 36 hours on suspicion of colluding with a foreign entity or country and was then released on bail. Lai has been a harsh critic of the new law as well as the Communist Party of China.
In a livestream video chat, the media tycoon said, “If I knew that I will end up here or eventually in prison, would I have changed myself in other way?” He continued. “I thought about it, and I said no, because this is my character. This is the way I react to things. My character is my destiny.”
Hong Kong has been a safe haven for media freedom for years ranking 18th place in a Reporters Without Borders global ranking in 2002. But the city has gradually slipped in with a dramatic drop to 80th place. This slip has also been noted by the consuls general in their opinion piece citing the recent arrest of a Radio Television Hong Kong journalist who had investigated police violence linking the new security measures as reasons for concern.
“With the imposition of the national security law, media in Hong Kong — or those abroad reporting on Hong Kong — must now try to navigate vaguely defined laws in an environment of heightened scrutiny and potential punishment,” they wrote.
Pro democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo also weighed in into the situation in an article by The New York Times last May. She said, “They are dealing a knockout blow to the democracy movement. All the fear, the desperation, the antipathy is now being answered by this national security law.”
Joshua Wong and his colleagues who were arrested earlier are not bound by the New Security Law since the alleged offences took place before the enactment of the law and have potentially avoided life sentence.