Early last week, high-profile media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested for publishing his pro-democracy tabloid, Apple Daily. The arrest is a part of the Chinese government’s latest efforts to enforce the new national security law that specifically targets journalists covering Hong Kong. The law was passed in late June.
Lai was held in jail for three days on suspicion of conspiring with a foreign country. He is under investigation due to the tabloid’s criticism of the Chinese and Hong Kong government.
“There were 15, 20 policemen there, and they said I was under arrest and that they were from the national security department,” Lai recalled in a live-streamed video chat Thursday.
The law outlines four broad categories of criminal activity for the state to suppress: terrorism, secession, subversion, and foreign interference. The categories do not translate to their surface-level definitions. Instead, the rhetoric embedded within the articles of the law opens a wave of harsher guidelines for journalists to work under, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“These four crimes, for which no official definitions have yet been provided, can incur charges in the Mainland as severe as the death penalty and are often used as a pretext to prosecute journalists,” RSF reports.
Journalists can be prosecuted for covering pro-democracy or pro-independence protests, writing about Hong Kong’s cultural identity, or writing for a foreign newspaper such as the New York Times. The Chinese government interprets foreign media agents as foreign agents working to promote the interests of the state where they are headquartered.
China has laws in place for the prevention of leaking of state secrets, a vague description that is open to interpretation and has already been used to help justify the imprisonment of journalists.
#BREAKING More than 300 people have been arrested in #HongKong so far for offences like unlawful assemblies, disorderly conduct in public places, furious driving, and breach of the #NationalSecurityLaw, which accounted for 9 arrests (5 males & 4 females).— Hong Kong Police Force (@hkpoliceforce) July 1, 2020
Many journalists and advocates have spoken out of concern about what will happen in light of the new law. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told CNN, “If individuals including reporters from CNN are discharging their role and feel something is not right and want to criticize, then I don’t see why that would be an offense under this law.”
According to Voice of America, there are reports of media organizations being approached by authors to take down prior published work in fear of repercussions from their words.
“So, editors are facing a very real conflict between the desire to retain previously ‘lawful’ publications and to preserve the historical record and the very real threats that authors face under the new law,” Sharron Fast, a lecturer in media law at the University of Hong Kong, told VOA.
Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK removed its interview with Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist, citing the national security law. The interview, about the postponement this July of parliamentary elections, was taken off the air before the national security law was implemented. Since then Law, the activist, has left Hong Kong and resides in London. Though fleeing his home has required severing all connections with his family, he says it is the only way to fight back.
Last month, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported that a total of six pro-democracy figures, including Law, were wanted on charges of inciting secession and colluding with foreign countries.
One of the wanted individuals, Samuel Chu, a U.S. citizen, is the director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a Washington DC-based advocacy group promoting freedom and autonomy for Hong Kong.
Last Friday I woke to news that HK authorities have issued an arrest warrant for me, an American citizen speaking out on American soil.— Samuel Chu 朱牧民 (@samuelmchu) August 7, 2020
Today, US strikes back by sanctioning HK's CE Carrie Lam and officials responsible for suppressing basic freedoms and the rule of law in HK. pic.twitter.com/ltuHyicqfm
In a social media post, Chu said “I might be the 1st non-Chinese citizen to be targeted, but I will not be the last. If I am targeted, any American/any citizen of any nation who speaks out for HK can-and will be-too.”