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Will Hong Kong’s Free Press Survive?

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tags: China, democracy, media, Hong Kong, press freedom



In the summer of 2019, Nabela Qoser, a broadcast reporter, became the face of Hong Kong’s adversarial press. The city was in deep political crisis. Anti-Beijing protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands of people had erupted over a government push to allow the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China. Then, one evening during an unusually hot July, a mob of men dressed in white, bearing metal rods and bamboo poles, attacked a crowd in a train station that included people returning home from the protests. The police, claiming to be busy elsewhere, did not immediately arrest the assailants. At a news conference the next morning, the city watched as Qoser fired rapid questions at Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader.

“Where were you all night?” Qoser asked, with steely enunciation. 

“Could you sleep?” 

“Was the violence a show jointly put on by the government, the police, and triads, as the public believes?”

Lam evaded the questions, and Qoser became impatient. “Speak like a human, please!” she interjected. The phrase immediately became an internet meme and fodder for political satire. To many, Qoser was the personification of the Fourth Estate, holding power to account.

Hong Kong has long had a boisterous press culture. In a place without democracy but with constitutional guarantees of free speech and a free press, the media spoke loudly about injustice, abuse, and scandal. From the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 to the Umbrella Movement twenty-five years later to the contentious and sometimes violent anti-government protests of 2019, news outlets in Hong Kong have had far more freedom than their counterparts in mainland China to report on regional politics and democratic developments.

But Beijing has since run out of patience. In a speech delivered in June 2020, a Chinese official gave rare insight into the government’s thinking: he blamed negative media coverage of China, loopholes in national security, and a lack of patriotic education as the foremost reasons that society had become “highly politicized and populist.” The speech foreshadowed tougher treatment of the press. 

Weeks later, in a move to quash dissent online and in the streets, Beijing imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong. The law is being applied broadly, to eliminate opposition. In late February, the police detained forty-seven democracy advocates—the bulk of Hong Kong’s active opposition figures—on charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion.” Beijing is now expected to drastically overhaul Hong Kong’s political system to purge democracy activists and those deemed disloyal from public office. Government, education, and media, a top official said, “have yet to really form a stable situation of ‘patriots ruling Hong Kong.’ ”

Read entire article at Columbia Journalism Review

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