Jan 4, 2022 - World

Free press crackdowns intensify in Hong Kong

Illustration of hand crushing a speech bubble with “Freedom and democracy for Hong Kong”

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Independent media is struggling to survive in Hong Kong, as the Chinese Communist Party looks to tighten its grip on pro-democracy voices.

Why it matters: Hong Kong's media environment, once among the freest in Asia, is growing gradually more similar to that of mainland China.

Driving the news: Citizen News, an independent outlet in Hong Kong, said it will close Tuesday, fearing the safety of its staff in light of new media crackdowns by mainland officials.

  • The move comes days after Stand News, another pro-democracy news site in the region, shut down following a national security raid that resulted in the arrests of seven journalists.
  • "These arrests and the shutdowns of Stand and Citizen are shocking and troubling, yet another blow to Hong Kong," said Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post.

Be smart: Mainland officials began to systematically stifle the free press last year, shortly after passing a sweeping national security law in 2020 that dramatically reduces personal freedoms.

  • One of the biggest targets was Next Digital, a media company founded by press tycoon Jimmy Lai, which shut down in response to the new Chinese Communist Party restrictions last year.
  • Lai, who was one of the most vocal pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong for years, was sentenced to 14 months in prison last year and now faces a new sedition charge from Chinese officials.

Be smart: So far, the crackdown is focused on Chinese language publications and Hong Kong-based publications that aren't part of a larger international news outlet.

  • No English language-only publications have been shut down, either in Hong Kong or internationally.

The big picture: Today, journalists in Hong Kong face serious penalties for speaking out. Eight Hong Kong media figures, including Lai, were jailed for their work last year, per the Committee to Protect Journalists.

  • The new laws put U.S. media companies in a tough position. Several Western outlets, including The New York Times, have been forced to move Hong Kong operations to neighboring regions like Seoul or Taiwan.

What to watch: The crackdown on Hong Kong stems from the same absolute intolerance for any dissent or criticism from Mainland China, and the desire for total control, that has resulted in ever-shrinking online space in China.

  • In November, Yahoo shut down its services in China, citing "the increasingly challenging business and legal environment" in the country.
  • In December, LinkedIn launched a new job boards app called "InJobs" that didn't include a content feed, after Axios reported that the company blocked the profiles of several U.S. journalists from its China-based platform, citing "prohibited content."

Bottom line: "No one except the quislings and enablers can kid themselves — press freedom is dead in Hong Kong," said Clifford, who was also a former Next Digital board member.

Go deeper: Press freedoms crumble as authoritarianism spreads

Go deeper