Hong Kong’s free press faces collapse as second news site announces closure

Citizen News chief editor Daisy Li and chief writer Chris Yeung attend a press conference at the company’s office in Hong Kong on Monday, after the news outlet announced its closure. Photograph: Bertha Wang/AFP

Hong Kong’s free press is on the brink of extinction after the two largest remaining independent news websites in the Chinese territory announced they were shutting down in the space of a week.

Citizen News, an online news site founded in 2017, said it would cease operations on Tuesday, citing safety concerns for its reporters. The decision, which will diminish further the once freewheeling and aggressive Hong Kong press corps, was announced after pro-democracy publication Stand News closed last Wednesday.

Stand News was raided by police and a number of journalists and former directors were arrested for allegedly publishing “seditious” materials.

Chris Yeung, Citizen News chief writer, said the move to stop publishing was “triggered” by the arrests at Stand News. “Those who are seen as critical or trouble makers, they are more vulnerable,” he said.

Citizen News chief editor Daisy Li added they were “no longer able to say for sure” what might violate a security law that Beijing imposed on the city in 2020.

Lokman Tsui, a former assistant professor in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said many of his students were now unemployed. “For the global city Hong Kong wants to be, it’s a sad state of affairs. We used to have a really robust press in Hong Kong, and it’s hard to say it’s free and robust at this point.

‘Chased away’

“This is part and parcel of this larger project . . . of dismantling the critical independent press in Hong Kong. [The government] has chased away and pressed all the critical outlets to shut down.”

The national security law, introduced after widespread pro-democracy protests in 2019, led to a crackdown on civil society, with more than 50 such groups closing down and opposition figures arrested.

The repression has also bled into the local media. Apple Daily, the city’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, shut down in June last year after 26 years. Its assets were frozen by authorities and senior management, including founder Jimmy Lai, were arrested.

Citizen News was staffed by about 40 journalists, many of whom had recently joined the company. The shutdown leaves the English-language news site Hong Kong Free Press and Chinese-language inmediahk.net as the last big independent news outlets in the city.

A former Stand News journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asked: “Why has the city deteriorated so quickly to the state that even normal media outlets are not allowed to exist?”

But John Lee, chief secretary for administration and the territory’s second most senior official, said last week that media outlets that endanger national security were “bad apples” and “evil elements that damage press freedom”.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chair of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies based in Beijing, insisted there would “still be space” for reporting that was critical of the government. “I don’t think the local media landscape will become [monotonous] . . . after some outlets ‘played safe’ and [closed down].”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022