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RFA Leaves Hong Kong, Citing Safety Concerns for Staff Amid Article 23
RFA Leaves Hong Kong, Citing Safety Concerns for Staff Amid Article 23

RFA Leaves Hong Kong, Citing Safety Concerns for Staff Amid Article 23

The atmosphere for media freedom in Hong Kong has become increasingly inhospitable since the 2020 National Security Law (NSL) and the Article 23 legislation that passed last week. The latest example occurred on Friday, when Radio Free Asia (RFA)’s president and CEO Bay Fang announced that, “in light of Hong Kong’s passage of Article 23,” RFA is shutting its Hong Kong bureau:

Concerns about the safety of RFA staff and reporters in Hong Kong have led us to restructure our on-the-ground operations there. While RFA will retain its official media registration, at this time we no longer have full-time personnel in Hong Kong and have closed our physical bureau. Actions by Hong Kong authorities, including referring to RFA as a “foreign force,” raise serious questions about our ability to operate in safety with the enactment of Article 23. 

Since opening our Hong Kong bureau in 1996, RFA has operated as a private news organization, its editorial independence safeguarded by a firewall endorsed by the same body that funds it, the U.S. Congress. We recognize RFA’s frontline status – as it is among the last independent news organizations reporting on events happening in Hong Kong in Cantonese and Mandarin. This restructuring means that RFA will shift to using a different journalistic model reserved for closed media environments. I commend RFA’s journalists and staff for making this difficult transition possible. For our audiences in Hong Kong and mainland China, who rely on RFA’s timely, uncensored journalism: rest assured, our programming and content will continue without disruption. [Source]

Fiona Chow at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) provided details on RFA’s restructuring behind the scenes:

An insider told the Post on Friday that among the four full-time staff in the city, two were recently relocated to Washington, one to Taipei and the remaining one was made redundant.

There were also several staffing changes after Beijing imposed a national security law in 2020, including two reporters who were relocated to Taiwan 18 months ago.

[…] While the Legislative Council was holding marathon meetings earlier this month to push forward the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, insiders at the station told the Post that reporters were told to leave Hong Kong as early as late February, with its office to be handed back to the station’s landlord in mid-April. [Source]

RFA’s announcement comes less than a week after Hong Kong enacted Article 23. While the NSL criminalized secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, the Article 23 legislation expanded on that to include harsher punishments for broadly-defined crimes such as treason, sedition, revealing state secrets, espionage, and external interference. RFA reported that nearly 20 minutes before Hong Kong’s Legislative Council began voting, CCTV had already published content announcing that the law had passed.

Kanis Leung from the AP described how the Hong Kong government had previously targeted RFA, putting added pressure on the media outlet:

In January, police issued a letter to RFA and condemned it for quoting “false statements” by wanted activist Ted Hui that they said smeared the police force.

Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, is one of the overseas-based activists for whom police have offered awards of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,000) for information leading to their arrest. He is accused of requesting foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.

In February, Hong Kong’s security minister, Chris Tang, said some comments quoted in reports by RFA about the new legislation were “fake” and “false.”

[…] When asked whether the work of RFA is considered “external interference” or “espionage,” Tang said any violation of the law should be judged on a case-by-case basis. If someone deliberately used false information to defame the government’s legislative work, he said he had to let Hong Kongers see clearly the intention of these “external forces” and those who have fled and want to endanger Hong Kong’s security. [Source]

In a joint letter firmly opposing the new legislation, 145 organizations, including many that document press freedom, stated, “With the passage of Article 23, investigative journalism and reporting on ‘sensitive’ political issues – given the broad definitions of ‘state secrets’ and ‘sedition’ – [has] become even riskier.” David Pierson at The New York Times highlighted concerns among advocates of press freedom that Article 23 legislation will further endanger journalistic work in Hong Kong:

[A]dvocates of press freedom say the laws significantly raise the risks for journalists operating in the city. Its vague definition of external interference can be broadly applied to regular journalistic work, the activists say.

[…] Cédric Alviani, the Asia-Pacific bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, said Hong Kong’s national security laws were placing pressure on local journalists to censor themselves to avoid crossing the government’s “blurry red lines.”

“What we’re seeing is the Chinese system of repression against the right to information and independent journalism is being applied more and more in Hong Kong,” Mr. Alviani said. [Source]

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said, “RFA’s decision [to close its bureau] represents the latest consequence of Hong Kong authorities’ continuing suppression of media freedom.” On Friday, the U.S. government announced that it is imposing new visa restrictions on “multiple Hong Kong officials responsible for the intensifying crackdown on rights and freedoms,” including those involved in Article 23 legislation. That same day, the State Department shared a report to Congress assessing the conditions of various freedoms in Hong Kong from February 2023 through December 2023. An excerpt from the section “Impact on Freedom of the Press” highlights Hong Kong government pressure on journalists and the closure of numerous media outlets:

More than 150 foreign news outlets received complaint letters from the Hong Kong government during the year, citing articles and editorials about the local government, the NSL, and major events in Hong Kong.  These letters, often under the name of the Chief Executive or other high-level officials, characterized the reporting and editorials as “grossly biased,” “groundless allegations,” or as having “reached new levels of nastiness.”  In February 2023, pro-Beijing media outlet Oriental Daily News accused the police of “pressing the media” after the newspaper received a letter from the police accusing it of criticizing police in “a biased and derisive manner.”

[…] In May 2023, local online news platform Transit Jam ceased operations.  The outlet was established in 2020 and reported on local transportation and infrastructure issues.  The announcement came days after pro-Beijing media attacked Transit Jam owner James Ockenden, alleging that Ockenden’s protest during Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Director Xia Baolong’s April visit was orchestrated by external forces, and accused Ockenden of publishing “anti-government posts” on the online outlet and social media.

In June 2023, Citizens’ Radio, a pro-democracy radio station founded in 2005 by former lawmaker Tsang Kin-shing, ceased operations after Tsang said the Hang Seng Bank froze the station’s bank account. [Source]

RFA’s departure follows other news organizations that have moved some or all of their personnel from Hong Kong. In 2020, under similar pressure from the Hong Kong government, the New York Times relocated its Hong Kong-based digital news operation to Seoul, South Korea. Since 2002, Hong Kong has dropped from 18 to 148 (out of 180) in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) global press freedom rankings. At least ten journalists in Hong Kong are currently in detention, according to RSF. One prominent media figure facing prosecution is Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, which the government forced to close in June 2021. Lai’s national security trial is currently underway following more than 1,000 days of pretrial detention. Two senior editors of Stand News are also on trial for sedition. Stand News closed in December 2021, just days before the closure of yet another independent local outlet, Citizen News. Hong Kong’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has also been neutered following the NSL. 

SCMP journalist Minnie Chan remains missing five months after she disappeared while on a reporting trip to Beijing, with little information available on her current whereabouts or condition. Many of her colleagues and fellow reporters fear that she is the latest Hong Kong journalist to be arbitrarily detained for her reporting. 

Meanwhile, multiple independent Hong Kong bookstores marked their last days in operation this week. Hans Tse from Hong Kong Free Press reported on one of them, Mount Zero, where hundreds of book lovers gathered to pay tribute:

Mount Zero announced its decision to close in December last year, citing a string of inspections by authorities following anonymous complaints. Over the past few months, people have found ways to pay tribute to the bookstore.

[…] Mount Zero was founded in 2018, before a wave of new independent bookstores opened in the city after it was shaken by the 2019 protests and unrest and then hit by Covid-19.

[…] Many supporters on Sunday carried a tote bag with a Chinese phrase that read: “From words to prosperity.” The saying is an apparent parody of “from stability to prosperity,” a phrase commonly used by the government after the Beijing-imposed national security law snuffed out the pro-democracy protests and unrest that began in 2019.

Judy said the bags, designed as a farewell souvenir for Mount Zero, were hand-printed by residents in the area. She added that it was a testimony to the community that grew from the bookstore. [Source]