The collapse of Hong Kong’s last big pro-democracy news outlet, Stand News, caps one of the world’s most dramatic declines in press freedom this year.
From the closure of Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper in July to the raid, arrests and asset seizures that precipitated Stand News’s shuttering Wednesday, the global financial hub has gone from being one of Asia’s most free-wheeling media markets to one of its most regulated. In addition to employing a national security law that carries sentences as long as life in prison, Hong Kong authorities have began charging journalists and internet users under a colonial-era sedition law that can jail a writer for up to two years.
While Hong Kong’s crackdown is unique to events in the former British colony, where Beijing is eager to prevent a return of the mass democracy demonstrations of two years ago, similar changes were seen across the globe in 2021. Governments — threatened by pandemic-fueled economic upheaval and emboldened by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign against “fake news” — appear poised for more steps to silence critical coverage in the year ahead.
In China, journalist Zhang Zhan is reportedly close to death amid a hunger strike in protest against her four-year jail sentence for reporting on COVID-19. Employees of Twitter Inc. who didn’t delete accounts criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government faced the threat of prosecution in India, the world’s biggest democracy. In Russia, authorities this month targeted two human-rights groups for closure, including one that tracks political prisoners. Iran, Egypt and Zimbabwe all moved to weaken journalists’ ability to report on the reality of the pandemic.
Journalism was completely or partly blocked in almost three-quarters of the 180 countries ranked in the latest survey by nongovernment organization Reporters Without Borders. The group found that 488 journalists were in jail, an all-time high since it began compiling numbers in 1995.
“Press freedom is on the back foot,” said Keith Richburg, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center and president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. “Trump helped create echo chambers of fake news, where anything that criticizes you is fake.”
“What’s happening in Hong Kong is part of a pattern of retrenchment,” he added. “The scope of countries where the press is actually free is getting smaller and smaller. Countries play lip service to the idea of press freedom without actually practicing it.”
The past year did bring some efforts to halt the trend. U.S. President Joe Biden tried to repair the doubts raised by his predecessor with a global democracy summit, and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Philippine and Russian journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. Still, the outlook for 2022 remains bleak.
The takedown of Stand News was more than just a blow to the local opposition. It marked the erasure of an influential organ of civic debate. The online platform founded in 2014 had in recent months investigated poor labor conditions and city officials receiving gift baskets from beleaguered property developer China Evergrande Group.
The closure was the latest of several shocks since China imposed the national security law in June 2020 and began to crack down on Hong Kong civil institutions where criticism of the Communist Party once flourished. Over the past 12 months, some of the city’s largest labor unions have disbanded, international nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International have left town and a new legislature was elected under a system that vetted candidates for their loyalty to the ruling party. More than 160 people have now been arrested by the local national security department.
Chinese officials dismissed criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and others, denying that the arrests of journalists was eroding press freedom. “Some external forces have repeatedly attacked the press freedom in Hong Kong to create the so-called chilling effect,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Hong Kong branch said in a statement Wednesday. “Supporting the freedom of the press is just their excuse, and their true purpose is to disrupt the stable and sound-governed Hong Kong.”
As the city approaches 25 years of Chinese rule — the halfway mark of Beijing’s promise to leave the city’s basic policies “unchanged for 50 years” — its system is looking increasingly like that across the border. China jailed at least 127 journalists in 2021, more than any country in the world. Bloomberg News staffer Haze Fan, who was taken from her Beijing apartment in December 2020 by national security agents, remains in detention.
“China is seeking to promote the notion that human rights, including press freedom and the right to information, aren’t universal, that every country could make its own definition,” said Cedric Alviani, East Asia Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders. “This idea totally contradicts the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and poses a threat to democracy worldwide.”
In Russia, where 58 journalists have been killed in the past 29 years, the government also ended the year by clipping civil society.
On Dec. 29, a Moscow court ordered the closing of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which tracks political prisoners. A day earlier, Russian officials demanded the closure of the human rights organization Memorial International on the grounds that the group failed to label documents as being the work of “foreign agents.” International Federation of Journalists General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said in a statement that the ruling “sets a dangerous precedent in an increasingly repressive environment.”
On Dec 27, a Russian journalist who had criticized Putin and suggested the country was heading for civil war was found dead on the street after falling out of his apartment window.
In Turkey, concerns over press freedom range from imprisoned journalists to the government’s tightened grip on social media to muzzle critics. Dozens of people have faced criminal charges for commenting on everything from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s health to wildfires that gripped the country last summer as well as the government’s handling of the pandemic and lately the state of the weakening economy.
At least 24 journalists were killed as a direct result of their work in 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least nine journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, including two who were attacked in their homes on Nov. 1. CPJ said three of the deaths in Mexico were confirmed to be linked to the journalists’ work. In Myanmar, where more than 80 journalists have been arrested for documenting protests to February’s military coup, a freelance photojournalist died in military custody this month after being detained for doing his job.
“Overall the climate has deteriorated and that is in keeping with the general decline in liberal democracy,” said Gypsy Guillen Kaiser, the advocacy and communications director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Legislation that suppresses access to information, as well as mistrust and animosity by the general public, are among the key hurdles impacting journalists’ ability to do their jobs.”
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