In the past year, two of Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy media outlets were toppled after enormous government pressure, a series of arrests and police raids on their newsrooms.
A third organization — the five-year-old Citizen News — announced last week that it would shut down, too. But unlike Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News didn’t wait for police to come knocking before closing shop.
“If we cannot continue reporting the way we wanted to and the way we feel safe to, ceasing operation is regrettably the only choice,” chief writer Chris Yeung said during a press conference Monday.
In the 18 months since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, the line defining what can still be published without breaking the law has become increasingly blurred. That’s made it all the more difficult for journalists to know what the authorities consider acceptable, and what could land them in prison for years.
That means Hong Kong — once home to one of Asia’s most vibrant media scenes, and a place that professes freedom of speech and freedom of the press — has lost almost all its homegrown independent news outlets. And, while the government has dismissed the idea that press freedom has been undermined, the future of independent reporting looks increasingly bleak.
“The government created this climate of self-censorship and fear, because the uncertainty of what is and is not illegal, and the uncertainty of what is and is not seditious is so blurred right now,” said former Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism professor Lokman Tsui, who now lives in the Netherlands.
“On the one hand, it’s a story of a bunch of outlets being forced to close down,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s really the story of how professional reporting in Hong Kong is now so dangerous that you might end up in jail.”
Citizen News’ announcement didn’t come entirely out of the blue.
Just days earlier, Stand News shut down after police raided its office and arrested seven people associated with the publication. The “fate of Stand News” triggered the decision by Citizen News, according to Yeung, who is also the former chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
The allegations against Stand News involve a “conspiracy to publish seditious publications,” which stems from a colonial-era crimes ordinance and not the national security law imposed in 2020. The Hong josKong police who raided the outlet’s office are national security officers.
Ultimately, Citizen News couldn’t be sure whether the stories it was asking reporters to write would violate regulations, and opted to shut to protect its staff, said Daisy Li, the publication’s chief editor.
To many onlookers, the outlet was yet another casualty of the city’s increasingly restrictive media environment. Like Apple Daily and Stand News, Citizen News published articles critical of government policies.
The speed with which the industry has been “gutted” over the past two years is really dramatic, according to Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at non-profit Freedom House.
Nearly a year ago, the Hong Kong government announced it would replace the director of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) with a public servant without any media experience. RTHK’s program staff union responded by saying the station had lost its editorial independence. Since then, a partnership between RTHK and Chinese state media has raised concerns among press freedom advocates that the media group is increasingly becoming a propaganda outlet.
Then, in June, hundreds of police officers raided the offices of long-running pro-democracy outlet Apple Daily. They arrested executives, froze its assets under national security charges — and ultimately prompted it to cease publication.
“[Hong Kong leader] Carrie Lam is patiently unraveling the substance of press freedom in Hong Kong,” Reporters Without Borders said in a December 2021 report on China’s press freedoms.
Lam has played down concerns. This week, she dismissed accusations that Citizen News and Stand News’ shutdowns were related to the national security law and pushed back against the idea that Hong Kong’s free press faced collapse. She claimed that the outlets made the decision to shut on their own.
“Nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong. And journalists and media organizations like all of us have to respect and comply with the law,” she said Tuesday. “If they are fearful of not being able to comply with the law, then they have to make up their mind and take the necessary decisions.”
What happens next
Despite Lam’s insistence that there is still freedom of the press in Hong Kong, the number of independent media outlets is rapidly dwindling.
Although there are still major international media outlets — including CNN and Bloomberg — operating large newsrooms in the city, there are few significant local independent outlets left, with experts pointing to Chinese-language inmediahk.net and the English-language Hong Kong Free Press as examples.
A number of other outlets are either backed by the Chinese state, or have mainland Chinese owners. The city’s largest English language paper South China Morning Post, for instance, is owned by mainland Chinese tech giant Alibaba.
There’s an expectation that any independent outlets will likely become targets sooner or later, said Hong Kong political commentator Joseph Cheng, who is now based in New Zealand.
Ronson Chan, the chair of the Hong Kong Journalist Association and a former editor at Stand News until it closed, agrees.
Free press might continue on a small scale, he said — but once outlets gain too much attention and resources, they will likely become targets.
“The media is in a … serious crackdown,” Chan, whose home was raided by police, told CNN Business. “The chilling effect will affect many decisions for the management of the other media.”
For now, international media haven’t faced the same challenges as local media, although some foreign journalists have been denied visas.
But Hong Kong’s future as a global media hub is in jeopardy. Just weeks after the national security law was imposed in 2020, the New York Times announced it would move some staff out of Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea. The Washington Post also chose Seoul as the location of its new Asia breaking news hub.
In a Foreign Correspondents’ Club survey of 99 Hong Kong-based journalists last year, 84% said the situation for the media had deteriorated since the national security law was introduced, and 46% said they were considering or had plans to leave the city due to the decline in press freedoms.
For now, the media in Hong Kong is still nowhere near as restricted as in mainland China, where Beijing’s so-called “Great Firewall” of censors severely curtails internet access and journalist visas are difficult to obtain.
But the city’s media environment is shifting to become more similar to the mainland.
In the future, Hong Kong could increasingly find itself in a situation where media covered the city from the outside — just as media do with mainland China, Freedom House’s Cook said.
And, said Tsui, the city’s internet could become more restricted, and could see authorities blocking access to articles it sees as controversial.
Why this matters
Experts also point out that the loss of local, independent outlets in Hong Kong could also undermine the press’ role as an important community watchdog.
That echoes the struggles that media organizations have had worldwide: In the United States, for instance more than 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004 and at least 200 counties have been left with no newspaper at all, according to a 2019 PEN America report.
“This is consistent across all countries, all cultures — if local journalism dies, corruption increases,” Tsui said.
The problem in Hong Kong, though, is that this trend of local media closures has been coupled with other attacks on democracy.
Since the National Security Law was introduced, nearly all of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures have either been jailed or gone into exile. A number of organizations and unions have disbanded or left Hong Kong, including the pro-democracy group that organized some of the city’s biggest protests. And the national security law is no longer merely a threat — some activists have now been jailed under the act.
“The suppression of the pro-democracy movement meant that there was no toleration of an opposition, no toleration of checks and balances,” Cheng said.
And when Stand News and Apple Daily closed, both publications also removed years of reporting from the internet, taking with them a historical record of the city.
“It’s an obvious attempt to remove the memory of Hong Kong people,” said Cheng.
There’s also a reputational cost to Hong Kong, which has long positioned itself as Asia’s world city.
Following the raid on Stand News, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China and Hong Kong authorities to stop targeting the city’s free and independent media, and uphold freedom of expression and access to information.
“These freedoms enabled Hong Kong to flourish as a global center for finance, trade, education, and culture,” he said in a statement.
“By silencing independent media, [the People’s Republic of China] and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability. A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press,” he added.
Despite heavy censorship in mainland China, Hong Kong does remain relatively free. This has allowed it to act as a kind of gateway into the country, and is why so many businesses and media hubs have been based in the city
But as Hong Kong edges closer to China, that’s changing.
“Now even this little peek hole is becoming a black box,” Tsui said. “What the world is losing is an insight into not just Hong Kong, but also an insight into what’s going on in China.”