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Press FreedomHong Kong

Is Hong Kong tightening its grip on foreign journalists?

William Yang
January 23, 2023

Hong Kong authorities have barred access to a Japanese photographer who documented the 2019 protests. Experts worry the crackdown on local media is being expanded to foreign journalists.

A sign pointing to the Immigration Department at the Lok Ma Chau station in Hong Kong
The stopping of a Japanese photographer by Hong Kong immigration authorities has experts worried how far the crackdown on press freedom in Hong Kong will goImage: Bertha Wang/AP Photo/picture alliance

Japanese photographer Michiko Kiseki had been planning to celebrate the 2023 new year countdown in Hong Kong, but upon landing in the former British colony, Kiseki was denied entry by the immigration authorities and forced to return to Japan on December 30.

In a thread on Twitter, Kiseki said the police repeatedly asked her questions about a photo exhibition she organized in Japan featuring her photography works on the 2019 anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong. "During the questioning in the other room, he mentioned the photo exhibition in Japan several times," she wrote.

"I knew that one day this would come, but it was sooner than I expected. However, I don't have a millimeter of regret for continuing to present my photos in 2019, because they are 'my proof.' I felt clear that 'Hong Kong's freedom is gone' as the end of 2022 will be my last time in Hong Kong," she added.

Her case didn't pass without a reaction, with the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) describing the incident as "alarming" saying it seems to reflect a trend of foreign journalists being denied entry into the city. According to HKJA, Kiseki is the fourth foreign journalist to have been denied entry into the semi-autonomous city since 2018.

Hong Kong's media under pressure

Hong Kong authorities refused to comment on Kiseki's case when contacted by DW, but analysts said the incident reflects the risks that foreign journalists or foreign nationals focusing on the situation in Hong Kong could face when they try to enter. "The case is alarming because what the authorities are monitoring is not just things happening in Hong Kong, but also activities abroad," said , a visiting researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law at Meiji University in Japan.

"The whole thing is about how the Chinese authorities have been using national security as an excuse to put pressure on people living outside of Hong Kong. They want to give the impression that they really mean it when they say the jurisdiction of the National Security Law (NSL) goes beyond Hong Kong's border," he told DW.

Hong Kong authorities' continued hostility toward press freedom

Since the NSL came into effect in July 2020, authorities in Hong Kong have used the law to target independent media outlets, pro-democracy politicians and young protesters. Several media outlets, including Apple Daily and Stand News, have been forced to shut down while media executives like Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai and top editors from the Stand News have been arrested and detained.

Authorities have also been trying to pass a proposed fake news law and other measures to tighten their control over the media space in Hong Kong. In an interview with the state-backed newspaper Commercial Daily last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee claimed some people in the city are trying to use journalism as a cover to pursue political aims or "launder money" in the city.

John Lee wins Hong Kong election

Lee said while there have been improvements in the "professionalism" of media outlets since the NSL came into effect, some people are still trying to advance their personal aims under the guise of journalism. "If the industry is self-disciplined, and everyone produces their own operational guidelines and rules… that would be ideal," he told the Commercial Daily.

Maya Wang, the associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told DW that Lee's latest comments seem to suggest the continued and deepening hostility toward press freedom. "The fact is being a journalist in Hong Kong is really hard," she said, adding that many journalists have left the city because the environment has become untenable.

According to press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders,at least 23 journalists and press freedom defenders have been prosecuted in Hong Kong over the last two years and 12 of them are currently in detention. Hong Kong's ranking in the group's World Press Freedom Index dropped from 80 to 148 in 2022.

A warning to foreign journalists and foreign media outlets

Other experts said Japanese photographer Kiseki's case could create a chilling effect among independent journalists and photographers outside of Hong Kong, as well as foreign media outlets that have staff in the city.

"The incident shows that the Hong Kong government is not only targeting local journalists, but they are also targeting overseas journalists and photographers," said Eric Lai, a visiting researcher at The Dickson Poon School of Law at King's College London.

"Foreign journalists and photographers used to think they have less burden to do genuine investigative reporting or documenting politically sensitive events in Hong Kong. It seems the scope of intimidation will continue to expand to foreign journalists too," he told DW.

Poon from Meiji University warns that journalists and photographers should be aware of the risks of publishing works that may be deemed inappropriate by the Hong Kong government. "Kiseki's case gives a clear signal to journalists and photographers who have covered the 2019 protest that if they want to showcase their videos or photos in public, they may risk being targeted by the Hong Kong authorities," he said.

"If they enter Hong Kong, they may be questioned and if they are lucky, they would just be sent back to their countries. However, they could also be detained or even charged with national security offenses. Foreign journalists and media organizations should no longer hold the delusion that there is still press freedom in Hong Kong, as it no longer exists in the city," said Poon.

Human rights campaigner Wang said the rapid deterioration of the environment for media in Hong Kong has pushed many media organizations to try to rearrange their staffing and resources. "Some media organizations have been taking some efforts to base some of their staff outside Hong Kong and I'm sure they are watching what's happening with the fake news law very closely," she told DW.

"I would imagine that over time, some of these media organizations would decide that the risks outweigh the benefits and they want to relocate some of their staff. While that's already happening, the situation in Hong Kong will push them out even faster," she added.

Journalists flee repression in Hong Kong

With foreign journalists in Hong Kong facing ever greater risks, Poon from Meiji University believes there are fewer and fewer differences between the semi-autonomous Chinese territory and the Chinese mainland. "Foreign journalists are often targeted by Chinese police for covering human rights issues, and some of them have been forced out of China as authorities refused to renew their visas," he said.

"Foreign journalists in Hong Kong may have to face similar challenges that their colleagues in China face in the future. Similar cases have already happened as some foreign journalists were denied visa renewal in Hong Kong, and authorities will never tell them where's the line between appropriate and inappropriate topics," Poon added.

Edited by: Alex Berry