Foreign journalists working in Hong Kong could be expelled if they “cross the line” while reporting on demands for independence for the territory, a member of the Chinese government’s top advisory body has said.
Charles Ho, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said while journalists were more likely to receive a warning if they unintentionally promoted Hong Kong independence while reporting, the issue was a red line for authorities.
“If you promote Hong Kong independence of course they will kick you out,” Mr Ho, who is also the head of Hong Kong media group Sing Tao News Corporation, said in an interview.
Mr Ho was speaking after China enacted a new national security law for the city last week. Journalist associations in the Asian financial hub, which has a long tradition of press freedom, have expressed alarm over a requirement in the new law that the Hong Kong government strengthen “guidance, supervision and regulation” of the media.
Beijing imposed the law on Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests in the city in which a limited number of activists have called for independence for the former British colony from mainland China.
The law has also created a new “office for safeguarding national security” and given it sweeping powers “to strengthen the management of and services” for foreign media.
The city’s political life changed overnight in response to the legislation, with libraries removing books by local political figures, such as pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong. Shop owners have been taking down signs supporting pro-democracy protests and residents deleting their social media and online histories.
Mr Ho said: “Hong Kong is very open to freedom of speech” and journalists were still able to report on independence issues but they should not be seen to be pushing the cause.
“It really depends on what line you draw . . . Don’t do any fake news, that’s the most important,” Mr Ho said.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said on Tuesday that foreign journalists would be able to report freely if they worked within the law. If “reporters in Hong Kong can give me 100 per cent guarantee that they will not commit any offence under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same”, she told a press briefing when asked if the media could report freely.
But there are signs that the media in Hong Kong are already self-censoring after the passage of the law. An economics columnist told the FT that a piece on the impact of the law on the city’s status as a financial hub was rejected by editors of a local newspaper the day after the law was enacted.
“This grotesque regulation that is widely open to interpretation, [it] not only gives the Beijing regime a tool to harass and punish journalists in Hong Kong under appearances of legality but it also allows China to intimidate and threaten news commentators abroad with incarceration”, said Cédric Alviani of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last week.
Even before the introduction of the security law, there had been fears for foreign and domestic press freedom in the city.
Hong Kong authorities denied Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet a work visa in 2018 after he hosted a talk at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club by the leader of a pro-independence party.
The FT reported last month that RTHK reporters were warned to avoid focusing on calls for independence at anti-government protests.
In addition, as part of a tit-for-tat fight with the US over foreign reporters, Beijing forced some journalists working for American media outlets in China to leave and said they would be unable to work in Hong Kong.