Experts in the media and legal sectors share their views on the national security law at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club on July 7, 2020. Photo: Asia Times

Journalists in Hong Kong have raised concerns about unintentionally violating the new national security law Beijing is imposing on the city and being forced to self-censor their reports.

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) published its annual report – titled “Freedom In Danger” – and raised concerns about the law, which it says will undermine press freedom in Hong Kong.

“The national security law poses particular challenges to media organizations and journalists; press freedom is on the verge of crisis,” HKJA chairperson Chris Yeung said in a media briefing.

A “chilling effect” was observed soon after the law was implemented, Yeung said. “Various shops and restaurants had their protest slogans or signs removed. The press always bears the brunt … it is expected that self-censorship will be more serious than ever.”

On June 24, Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) sent an open letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, urgently seeking clarification regarding the potential impact of the national security law on the city’s media, including foreign correspondents, and the broader implications for press freedom.

“We expressed our concern that the new law will curtail the ability of journalists to report freely about Hong Kong and mainland China, as is our right under Article 27 of the Basic Law,” it said.

On June 29, the government replied to the FCC but did not address any of the requests, nor did it specifically mention upholding press freedom. The FCC sent another open letter to Lam asking the government to guarantee that “journalists will not face legal risk for criticizing the central and Hong Kong governments or their officials, or for quoting government critics.”

The FCC also asked the government to guarantee that “citizens must be free to speak to journalists without fearing for their safety or risking legal action” while “no topic will be off limits or taboo for journalists, including sensitive political issues.”

On Tuesday, Lam was asked about whether the government would provide such a guarantee.

“If the FCC or all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100% guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same,” Lam said.

“It is not a question of me standing here to give you a guarantee of what you may or may not do in the days and weeks and years ahead,” said Lam. “The law has clearly defined the four types of acts and activities which we need to prevent, curb and punish in accordance with the law.”

Lam said the national security law would ultimately restore stability in Hong Kong, not undermine the human rights and freedoms of its citizens.

Some experts in the media and legal sectors said it was difficult to determine the unspoken “red lines” of the national security law before there are actual court cases. They have recommended that Hong Kong-based journalists take several more steps to protect themselves and their sources, instead of excessively engaging in self-censorship.

“Self-censoring too much is a way of giving in,” Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer, and the author of the book City on Fire, said in a panel discussion organized by the FCC on Tuesday.

Dapiran said journalists should continue to do their jobs in the city as they have always done until a court case or an interpretation of the law draws a red line.

“You need to be very vigilant about how you report and keep the information and probably have a good practice to destroy information as soon as it is used,” he said, adding that the police now have more power to obtain materials and devices from reporters in Hong Kong.

“How do we work in the new environment. We don’t have a template…if we look at China as a template, it’s pretty bad and strict,” Keith Richburg, a professor and director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, said during the FCC panel discussion.

“If it operates the way it is in the mainland, I see potential visa restrictions on journalists… the second thing is that we might get called in for tea,” he said. “You come too close to the red line… they usually give you another chance.”

According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, China ranked No 177 out of 180 countries and territories, compared with Hong Kong in 80th place and Taiwan in 43rd.

He said the biggest threat facing foreign reporters is deportation, but local journalists risk criminal charges and jail time.

He said when he was in Beijing, he used special phones and SIM cards to contact interviewees and met them in parking lots. He said he did not let people come to his office because they could leave sensitive documents on the premises, which could cause problems.

Sharron Fast, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said it was difficult for Hong Kong lawyers to give firm, strong and clear advice on what media companies should do to comply with the national security law, which has a “continental flavor” and has been heavily influenced by the socialist legal system of mainland China.

“My opinions on the law are formed by my understanding of the common law and the Basic Law…they may be only 50% of the equation,” Fast said.

“We understand that the new legislation in Hong Kong has two streams. One stream of the authority is directly imposed by Beijing and the other stream is in the very good hand of the Hong Kong judiciary,” she said. “The uncertainty comes with that.”

She said Articles 9, 10, 41 and 54 mentioned the media sector but it was currently difficult to interpret them.

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