Protests in Hong Kong. Credit: Studio Incendo via Flickr CC license

The Swift Demise of Free Press in Hong Kong

Hong Kong used to have one of the most vibrant media ecosystems in all of Asia. But not today.

There is an ongoing crackdown on independent media in Hong Kong. Outlets large and small are being shut down, ostensibly for violating newly enacted laws intended to suppress the pro-democracy movement.

On the line with me from Hong Kong to discuss the plight of independent media there is Austin Ramzy of the New York Times.

For the Love of Hong Kong: A Memoir from My City Under Siege” by Hana Meihan Davis

Austin Ramzy’s New York Times story

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What Did the Media Ecosystem Look Like in Hong Kong Before This Crackdown on the Free Press?

Austin Ramzy [00:02:16] Yeah, and that’s a good way to start this, you know, Hong Kong for a long time had one of the most vibrant media scenes in Asia: strong freedom of the press and protections of press freedoms. And there were quite a lot of different outlets, of different options, both in English and in Chinese. You know, everything from newspapers controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, more mainstream outlets in English and Chinese, and then starting about twenty-five years ago with the creation of Apple Daily there was a segment of the press that was vocally pro-democracy that sort of grew, particularly after protest movements. And, you know, there was a big protest movement in 2014 called the Umbrella Movement, and several digital outlets came out of that. They were very focused on covering the political movements that were born from those protests—or helped generate those protests. They were very interested in the pursuit of democracy in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has sort of a partially democratic system, although many would say it’s becoming less democratic because of some recent electoral changes. These outlets were leaders in livestreaming protests and things like that. For the average Hong Konger, whether you consume your news in English or Chinese, there’s sort of a gamut of outlets that you could read that would offer a variety of political opinions.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:08] And I take it it’s not dissimilar to any like major western city.

Austin Ramzy [00:04:13] Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a good way to look at it.

Why has the government cracked down on the Hong Kong press?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:16] But that has all changed. How and when did this start to change? When did this vibrant, free press milieu no longer become the space that it once was? How did this start?

Austin Ramzy [00:04:32] Well, I think the change sort of started with the 2019 protest movement and the end of the 2019 protest movement. So, in 2019, pretty much the second half of the year, Hong Kong was engulfed by large protests, sometimes violent, particularly towards the end. It started around a proposal to allow extraditions to Mainland China but became this sort of movement focused on a lot of things, a lot of issues with the government, including the slow pace of democratization. So, in 2020, those protests were brought to an end through a few things. Policing became much more aggressive; the pandemic started so there are restrictions on public gatherings, but there was also a sort of legal campaign that started—well, it started earlier, but Hong Kong first sort of learned about it in the spring of 2020, and there was a very broad national security law that was put in place by Beijing. That law covers things like terrorism and subversion, collusion with foreign forces, and separatism. And some of the people arrested under that were people who had carried out violent protests but in general, these were people who basically had argued for things that the government had outlawed. One of the targets of that law was Jimmy Lai, who was the founder of Apple Daily, and he was arrested. He’s in prison at the moment, serving some sentences for participation in unauthorized demonstrations but he also faces a national security law charge for, I believe, it’s collusion with foreign forces. Essentially, he’s accused of arguing for sanctions against Hong Kong.

What was Apple Daily and why was it so important to Hong Kong’s media ecosystem?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:10] Can I have you just explain the role and the importance of Apple Daily in Hong Kong’s media space? I take it, as you said, that Jimmy Lai, the founder of this news outlet, was arrested under the pretense of the national security law, which was enacted in June of 2020. What was Apple Daily? Because this kind of sent shockwaves across the media universe, but I also want to impart upon the audience the role of, and the importance of, this specific media outlet.

Austin Ramzy [00:07:48] Yeah. Apple Daily was a really interesting publication. It was one of the most popular newspapers in Hong Kong. It was very splashy, very colorful, very sort of tabloid-y. They were very interested in celebrity gossip and covered it with a lot of vigor but at the same time, they approached political news and scandals and corruption with the same sort of energy, and it was very much a product of Jimmy Lai. He was this this guy who came to Hong Kong from mainland China as a child. He sort of worked his way up in clothing factories and then bought a clothing factory and became a tycoon but decided that politics were sort of his biggest interest, and the press. He was resolutely anti-communist so his publication, sort of, had that bent as well. And so that had a huge role in the publication and other publications owned by Jimmy Lai had a real effect on the media space here. You know, it sort of created this intense competition and so while other papers might not approach stories in quite the same way that Apple Daily would, having Apple Daily out there sort of splashing these stories on the front page in a competitive media environment, put pressure on other publications to cover things and cover topics that they might have ignored or soft pedaled in the past. There are several generations of journalists that worked at Apple Daily and many of them left or, you know, some of them left and joined these smaller digital publications that came about over the past decade in Hong Kong.

Does Hong Kong still have free and fair media in the absence of Apple Daily?

Mark Leon Goldberg: [00:10:07] And so it was last year that Apple Daily was forced to close, essentially, after the arrest of Jimmy Lai, and that event sent shockwaves across the media sphere and was just an indication, I think, of the trajectory of things to come in Hong Kong over the last, say I don’t know like 12 or 18 months or so. In the absence of Apple Daily, what other media outlets emerged that could be considered, you know, independent, free, and fair media?

Austin Ramzy [00:10:44] Yeah, so there’s a lot of publications—there’s still many publications in Hong Kong that are operating, it’s not as if everything is closed down, but some of the ones that sort of took over the mantle of Apple Daily, at least in some respects, are outlets like Stand News and Citizen News. You know, they didn’t have the sort of tabloid attitude, they were much more serious, I would say, but they had the same ethos of questioning the the powers that be of demanding answers and diving deeply into stories, political stories of importance to Hong Kong. And, you know, after the protests ended, a lot of the story moved to the courts. There were 10,000 people arrested and a couple thousand people have been charged with various crimes and so these publications devoted a lot of energy to covering that court story.

How has the Beijing government reacted to Hong Kong’s free and fair media?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:00] And so you had these publications doing that kind of like shoe leather court reporting, but they’ve now been systematically targeted. Can you tell us what happened to Citizen News, for example?

Austin Ramzy [00:12:11] Sure, so once Apple Daily closed there was this sort of lingering question about what publications would be targeted next. The first one to be targeted after Apple was Stand News and Standis a relatively small operation, I believe they had about 50 staff, but they, again, covered courts and politics quite deeply so they they were raided at the the beginning of this year, and they were charged with sedition—two of the staff. And the publication itself was charged with sedition. So, sedition is not part of the security law, it’s an old colonial law that hasn’t been used for quite some time—I think the last time it was used was during the Cultural Revolution. So, in the 1960’s in Hong Kong and, you know, it’s basically like inciting hatred of the government. So that is kind of an indication that it’s not just about the national security law, but rather a broader campaign to use lots of legal tools to target these outlets. After those arrests and charges, Standclosed and then the next to fall was Citizen News, which operates in sort of a similar space. There were no arrests or charges at Citizen, but their leadership said we can’t operate in this environment. I believe their chief editor, Daisy Li, said something to the effect of ‘I don’t know which quote or which story, or which headline is going to violate some law, and I can’t ensure the safety of my staff.’ And so that’s the reason that Citizendecided to close.

How are other media outlets faring in this crackdown on the free press in Hong Kong?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:34] So I mean, it’s clear that there is this systematic effort by authorities in Beijing to shutter or otherwise, compel to silence the free press in Hong Kong. What remains? Like you said, there still are publications out there that are still publishing. Are they publishing things that might certainly cross the authorities in Beijing and invite, you know, their own demise?

Austin Ramzy [00:15:02] You know, the press is not dead in Hong Kong by any means, they’re still …

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:07] I’m speaking to you!

Austin Ramzy [00:15:10] There are still outlets here both in English and Chinese. What’s happened is that there used to be this spectrum of outlets in Hong Kong, you know, ranging from these sorts of government-owned or Communist Party-owned publications to outlets like Apple Daily that I would say were on the other side of the spectrum. The side of the spectrum that publications like Stand and Citizen and Apple were on, that sort of pro-democracy side, is gone, or severely weakened, and now there are just a couple of small digital outlets there. So that means everything is sort of shifted. What in the past would be like at the center—and in this case, in Hong Kong, I’m thinking about a Chinese language publication called Ming Pao, a very storied publication that was roughly in the center of things is now targeted by these pro-Beijing newspapers for something they wrote. And so, it’s not that the media no longer exists in Hong Kong, but the spectrum is quite narrowed and could be narrowed further. And I think it has an effect on the environment.

How did the Hong Kong media cover Peng Shuai’s accusation of Zhang Gaoli?

Austin Ramzy [00:16:52] Late last year, there was this political story out of China where a tennis player named Peng Shuai accused a senior Communist Party official, or recently retired official, Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into sex. She had a statement that briefly appeared on her social media account and then disappeared, and it was very murky. Foreign media covered it, but there was there was real silence in Hong Kong. And Stand and Citizen which were still around, they did cover it, but a lot of the bigger publications shied away from it. Ming Pao covered it in a very short business story that sort of mentioned potential effects of businesses connected to this Chinese official. We don’t know, but I think had this happened, say, three years ago when all these publications were still around and Apple Daily was out there splashing it on its front page for days in a row, that other publications would have felt this competitive pressure and they would have also felt a sense of cover that the story is out there, it’s being widely discussed in Hong Kong, it’s on the newsstands, and so  we can cover it as well. So, I think that, you know, going forward, we may see more cases of that where there’s a lot more caution in the Hong Kong media.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:37] Essentially like self-censorship, a story that they normally would have chased after, that they normally would have covered widely they are shying away from for fear of crossing Beijing.

Austin Ramzy [00:18:51] Yeah, exactly. I mean, you know, I think that was sort of reflected in what that Citizen News editor said when they closed was that ‘we don’t know where the red lines are now anymore. We don’t know what could cross the government and we would be targeted.’

How is this crack down on Hong Kong media related to changes in the government and the electoral process?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:06] So what effect is this having on civic life in Hong Kong? I mean, right now, it seems that Hong Kong is living through, or experiencing, this really awful experiment, almost like a controlled experiment: What happens when a once vibrant free press dies within just a few years? Are you seeing any discernible effects in society right now, or among the politics of Hong Kong? Like what happens when a once vibrant, free press no longer is able to hold leaders to account?

Austin Ramzy [00:19:48] Yeah, it is a bit odd to be living through this and, sort of, see all these things that in the past there was a sense that of politics becoming more restricted, but it happened in a very gradual rate, and now it’s happening in a very sudden rate. It’s worth noting that this is not happening on its own. It’s not just the press that’s feeling this; it’s also the sort of political world and the business world. The system of elections here is pretty complicated but, in the past, essentially about half the seats in the Legislature were directly elected and it was quite competitive and there was a large number of pro-democracy candidates who would win in those elections. That system has been completely changed, and there’s a lot more restrictions on who can run. The government has much more of a role in vetting candidates. And so, we recently had an election here. The turnout was the lowest it’s been in decades and there was not much enthusiasm for that. That’s part of this sort of overall changes here.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:16] It’s almost like a negative feedback loop, right? Like you have the crackdown on civil society, a crackdown on the freedom of press which depresses the pro-democracy movement which depresses turnout. You know, it seems to be all part of this negative feedback loop, this kind of vile system.

Austin Ramzy [00:21:34] I think that’s right, and I think that it’s sort of a sense that these things need each other. You can’t have free and fair elections without a vigorous press covering them. And so, you know, when a clampdown happens, it happens across many, many layers of society. I think it’s hard to say exactly because we’re in the sort of COVID era and so a lot of things are restricted. It’s pretty much impossible to have a demonstration right now because of COVID rules but at the same time we know policing is much more aggressive. And when we eventually come out of this pandemic and those distancing rules drop, what will it be like? Will Hong Kong be able to have a protest or a march? We’ve seen that Hong Kong was basically the only place on Chinese soil where Tiananmen was publicly, the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and the protesters who were killed there, was commemorated on a large scale every year. That vigil has been banned the past couple of years. We’ve also seen statues commemorating that were removed from university campuses over the winter holidays. So yeah, there is a real quieting of public life in general here, I would say.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:20] So as an international reporter, I mean, you’re publishing articles in the New York Times like all the time about actual factual things that are happening in Beijing, the crackdown on press freedoms in Hong Kong, pardon me. Are you concerned that you will no longer be able to do your work, that you’ll have to leave Hong Kong?

Will foreign press still be allowed to operate in Hong Kong?

Austin Ramzy [00:23:44] It’s always a possibility. The authorities have not been shy about saying that the national security law applies to everyone, Chinese and foreign, and people both in and outside of Hong Kong. You know, I faced these sort of things before: in 2014, I was forced to leave Beijing where I had lived and work for seven years because of a visa issue and we’ve seen a small number of reporters who have had their visas denied in Hong Kong as well. So that tactic that’s used by the central government authorities to force out reporters is becoming increasingly common in Hong Kong. I mean, that’s something in the back of my mind but at the same time, I don’t worry about it day-to-day as I do my stories. The moment you start sort of letting that affect what you do, you’re lost as a reporter. I try and just go about my work as normal.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:58] Lastly, in the coming days or weeks or even months, are there any sort of indicators or trends or decisions or inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not this campaign of the suppression of free and independent media in Hong Kong is sort of accelerating or stalling or just continuing at pace? Is there anything you’ll be looking towards?

Austin Ramzy [00:25:27] Yeah, I mean, one of the things everyone’s looking at now is the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which is a union of journalists from Hong Kong publications including many people from the publications that have closed who are members of HKJ, and it has been targeted for quite some time, going back to the middle of last year, by state media. And you know, it seems like it is potentially at risk. At the same time, it’s not clear what they can be charged with, and they are quite a robust organization and don’t seem to be willing to disappear easily but as publications and civil society organizations disappear it seems like it could be another target and has been mentioned sometimes recently in the state-controlled press, so that’s one of the main things that we’re looking at.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:44] Well, Austin, thank you so much for your time.

Austin Ramzy [00:26:47] Awesome. Thank you, Mark.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:51] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Austin Ramzy for speaking with me. And, you know, the topic of Hong Kong is something that I’m just fascinated by—this idea that in just the course of like a year or two years, a place can go from a vibrant, liberal place to somewhere where you could be arrested for the words you write on the page. It happened so quickly, and the experience of shuttering of civil society, of closing of the free media, of arresting of pro-democracy activists is something that I will return to often in the podcast and it was what inspired me to want to commission the book “For the Love of Hong Kong, a Memoir For My City Under Siege” by Hana Meihan Davis to give readers a sense of what it’s like to live through this era in Hong Kong. So again, please do buy that book, please do share this podcast episode, and we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!