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History of censorship and media freedom in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily ceased operations on June 23

apple-daily-hong-kong-reuters A man gestures as he brings copies of the final edition of Apple Daily, published by Next Digital, to a news stand in Hong Kong, China June 24, 2021 | REUTERS/Lam Yik

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was signed with 48 of the 58 members (eight abstained and two did not vote), where “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

Ever since renationalisation of Hong Kong in 1997, the role of the press and media has been under scrutiny with the question of how free freedom in reality is. During the time of transition into the dual authoritarian rule that exists today, local elites were chosen to facilitate the transfer of power. When it came to the drafting of the Basic Law and participation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Preparatory Committee, it is interesting to note that they were mostly media owners.

Louis Cha a member of the Law Drafting committee was also the owner of Ming Pao, a Chinese Newspaper in 1980s. Sally Aw, the owner of the Sing Tao Group in charge of the Sing Tao News Corporation was appointed a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). This trend followed through 2003 with ppointment of Yang Lan of Sing Pao Daily and Oriental Daily’s Ma Ching Kwan in the CPPCC. Later on, various political appointments were made which included Peter Woo Kwong-Ching, of i-CABLE Communications, Chan Wing Ki of Asia Television Ltd., Ricky Wong chairman and founder of HK Broadband, Charles Ho, chairman of Sing Tao. In more recent times, Richard Liu, CEO of JD, an e-commerce giant and William Ding, CEO of online game maker NetEase, Zhou Hongyi, CEO of Qihoo, a security software maker, Neil Shen, managing partner of Sequoia Capital China, a venture capital firm and Yao Jinbo, CEO of 58.com, a Craigslist-esque classifieds site are delegates who have been delegates in the last CPPCC.

With the promise of “one country, two systems” direct intervention from the Chinese government was near impossible, particularly in media. When people voiced the idea of self-censorship practised in Hong Kong particularly with regards to news, cultural orientation seems to have come into play. The role of Hong Kong media during what was called the first pandemic of 21st century, i.e Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) inside mainland China in 2003, was notable in strengthening its foundation for its international contributions. Apple Daily was on the frontline while criticising China for not releasing the information and data regarding the same. When the global coverage stood in contrast with the information released by the Chinese media, they were forced to revise their stand. Over the years, the legitimacy of news from Hong Kong served as a neutral source about the actuality of situations in mainland China.

Hong Kong Media has often been dubbed as the surrogate for democracy as it gave a space to voice the options and bridge the gap between the public and officials. The intertwined forces of renationalisation, localisation, and internationalisation portray the media politics in post-handover Hong Kong. This is where self-censorship came into play. It became a form of self-defence as the media moguls trifled around their stands on decisions by mainland China, which was both their strength and reason for the downfall.

The commercial success of news media like the Apple Daily acted as a buffer and a benchmark to see how far they can take the news before getting into trouble. By the late 2000s, censorship of news became more difficult as foreign news agencies set their offices in Hong Kong. Historically speaking Hing Kong has been a neutral meeting ground for the east and the west. Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily with, his tabloid-style journalism was the loophole, which took to the masses, as a result of it, the big-name companies pulled advertisements from Apple Daily. At the end of 2019, China had 48 journalists in prison. They covered what is now termed as the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. The protest was the result of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) ruling out the possibility for any candidate not endorsed by Beijing to be nominated for the elections. The movement was supported by the legal scholar Benny Tai’s Occupy Central.

In 2019, as a result of mounting cost and the falling stocks, journalists and publishers turned to the likes of LikeCoin, a platform where content creators can record the data and guarantee its integrity using LikeCoin’s content registry protocol, ISCN (International Standard Content Number), similar to an ISBN Number was used as a solution. It is a ‘Decentralized Publishing Infrastructure empower content ownership, authenticity, and provenance… works as a repository for immutable digital content metadata’.

Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, more commonly known as the Hong Kong National Security Law concerns the national security legislation. Interestingly this law was attempted to be passed in 2003, during the SARS pandemic but failed due to the mass demonstrations. A more successful attempt was made in June 2020.

On August 10, 2020, Jimmy Lai was arrested under the “collusion with foreign powers” charge along with six associates at Next Media. In the same year, various arrests which included journalists and pro-democratic figures were made as a result of enforcing the above-mentioned rule.

 On June 23, at 11:59pm,  Apple Daily ceased service in both print and online due to their assets being frozen under the order of the 5th term Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam. Later this week she suggested, it is up to the journalists themselves to sort out how to avoid breaking the national security law whereas the law will not be affecting the “normal journalistic work”. However, it is still unclear as she did not explain what “normal” was.

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