Published 2 November at Thomson Reuters Foundation, here.
Every November 2 is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, a day to condemn the killing, intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary detention of journalists and media workers around the world. Because these crimes often have a digital component, ending impunity for attacks on journalists should also involve safeguarding internet freedoms.
Hong Kong, once relatively free, has become a microcosm of the global assault on journalists and online expression.
In June, Hong Kong authorities raided Apple Daily offices, accusing the newspaper of violating the overbroad National Security Law (NSL). Police seized electronic devices, froze assets, and arrested senior editors and executives. More Apple Daily staff have since been arrested on spurious charges under the NSL. The 26-year-old independent publication has been forced to shut down, along with its parent company, Next Digital, citing a “climate of fear.”
Hundreds of journalists have lost their livelihoods, while the founder, Jimmy Lai, and several senior staff now risk life in prison or extradition to mainland China.
Journalists and civil society activists who have been released on bail have faced arbitrary restrictions on their freedom of expression. Bail conditions forbid any engagement with traditional or social media that may be construed as violating the vague NSL. Detainees can’t even turn down bail to protest restrictive conditions, as in late October with the bail hearing for five members of the banned Hong Kong Alliance, organizers of the annual Tiananmen Square vigil.
Within this climate of fear, Apple Daily has not been alone.
Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), under new state-approved management has removed hundreds of videos from YouTube and Facebook, deleted their Twitter account, and cancelled long-running political programs, leading to a crowd-sourced archiving scramble.
In late September, RTHK further issued new editorial guidelines to support the government in upholding national security. Non-compliance will be punished, hardly a boon for safeguarding the rights or independence of journalists.
Earlier this summer, Stand News removed all political commentary from its website, while late last year, i-Cable, Hong Kong’s largest pay TV operator, sacked some 100 staff, losing a popular program known for investigative reporting along with its entire China news team.
Wikipedia has been another casualty of the assault on independent media. Hong Kong volunteers have increasingly struggled to find “reliable” sources that are not Chinese state-media, increasing the risk of nationalist or disinformation narratives. Independent voices have been targeted.
In September, the Wikimedia Foundation took the rare step of banning seven mainland users and revoking administrator privileges for 12 others affiliated with the Wikimedians of Mainland China (WMC) group who had infiltrated Wikimedia systems, accessing personally identifiable user information, and harassed, intimidated, and threatened users. Some were physically harmed.
Steps to end impunity and protect expression online
Governments and multilateral bodies, such as the Media Freedom Coalition, should continue to denounce the persecution of civil society and journalists, and commit to concrete measures to hold authorities in Hong Kong and China accountable.
Governments should pursue sanctions, such as the through the Global Magnitsky Act. The United Kingdom, in particular, could explore raising China’s treaty breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and the Basic Law at the International Court of Justice. States should also guarantee safe haven for journalists and others fleeing persecution in Hong Kong.
While circumvention tools are important, such as those promoted by the Safeguarding Internet Freedom in Hong Kong Act before the U.S. Congress, governments should also declare a moratorium on the export of surveillance tools that put civil society at risk.
Technology companies should resist censorship or content geo-blocking requests in Hong Kong, or at least guide all content moderation policies based on the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Content Moderation and relevant international norms.
With decades of independent media and cultural output at risk, hosting services and social media platforms should engage with civil society to safely preserve content, and in particular to archive Hong Kong’s independent Chinese-language media.
Technology companies should reaffirm their commitments not to comply with user data requests, or related intrusions of the right to privacy that persecute journalists and civil society.
Content teams and data servers may need to relocate from Hong Kong, a solution that will work at least until the imposition of stricter data localization regulations such as in mainland China through the restrictive Cybersecurity Law.
The international community also needs to prepare to counter upcoming threats. Hong Kong authorities have already announced that they are considering their own cybersecurity law to regulate “critical infrastructure” as well as an “anti-fake news” law, such as we have seen deployed across the world to intimidate, harass, and arrest journalists and civil society.
These challenges are not unique to Hong Kong, but ending impunity for crimes against journalists and safeguarding freedom online requires action at multiple fronts.