Hong Kong leader rejects claims of press freedom ‘extinction’

Journalists face mounting pressure in Chinese territory with three independent media outlets closing since imposition of security law.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has dismissed suggestions that press freedom in the territory faces "extinction" [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said that she could not accept suggestions that press freedom in the city faced “extinction”, as independent media outlet Citizen News closed over safety fears, days after a police raid on another independent media outlet led to sedition charges against senior staff.

“This morning I read news about, because of the closure of online medium, press freedom in Hong Kong faces extinction … I just cannot accept that sort of allegations,” Lam said at her weekly press conference on Tuesday.

Citizen News announced its closure on Sunday, citing a “deteriorating” media environment in the former British colony and concerns about the safety of its journalists following the previous week’s raid on rival publication Stand News.

Beijing promised to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms, including a free press, for at least 50 years when it took control of the territory in 1997, but has been accused by Western countries and rights groups of eroding democracy and freedoms, particularly since the imposition of the national security law.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing have repeatedly denied the accusations and say the security law helped restore stability after mass protests in support of democracy in 2019.

The closure of Citizen News means three publications have now closed since the legislation was introduced at the end of June 2020.

The popular pro-democracy Apple Daily closed last year after police raids on its offices and the arrest of key staff, including founder Jimmy Lai who has been in jail since December 2020. The 74-year-old vocal critic of Beijing has been accused of “colluding with a foreign power” – an offence under the security law – and last week was slapped with an additional charge of sedition under a colonial-era law.

Two editors at Stand News, an independent online publication, also face charges of sedition following a police raid last week that saw the outlet’s assets frozen. Several other current and former senior editors and former board members were arrested, including popular Cantopop singer Denise Ho.

The security law criminalises what Beijing deems acts of “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism”, and “foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs”.

More than 100 pro-democracy supporters have been arrested under the law so far, and many others, including elected pro-democracy politicians, have fled into exile.

Beijing has also moved to overhaul the territory’s electoral system to ensure only “patriots” are elected to office. The new members of the Legislative Council took their oath of allegiance in front of Lam on Monday, following December elections in which turnout plunged to a record low.

A security guard stands below the Chinese national emblem before newly-elected legislators take their oath at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Monday [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters