The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today expressed fear that a new national security law proposed by China will stifle press freedom and cripple independent media in Hong Kong.

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), currently meeting in Beijing, is expected to pass the controversial measure, aimed at banning activities in Hong Kong deemed to amount to sedition, secession and subversion.

The national security legislation presented on May 22 provides for the national security apparatus of the Chinese government to set up agencies in Hong Kong to “fulfil relevant duties to safeguard national security in accordance with the law”. The bill is a response to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which last year through repeated mass protests successfully forced the Hong Kong government to withdraw a controversial bill that would have allowed for the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland.

Journalists in Hong Kong, according to sources in the territory who spoke to IPI, fear that authorities will use the new security law to clamp down on press freedom and legitimate expression of opinion by considering these activities as seditious or subversive. An analysis in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post highlighted similar concerns. In the past China has targeted activists, journalists, critics, and lawyers on the Chinese mainland using national security laws.

Addressing the session of the NPC, the vice chairman of the NPC standing Committee, Wang Chen, said that the law is meant “to prevent, frustrate and punish the small minority of criminal acts that harm national security is to offer better protection to the safety of life and property of the vast majority of Hong Kong people, as well as their basic rights and freedoms.”

While details of how the law will be implemented are still not clear, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has claimed that the legislation will not undermine the ‘one country, two systems’ principle or the city’s high degree of autonomy.

“The secrecy surrounding the bill has prevented any public discussion about legal changes expected to severely affect the rights of people in Hong Kong and undermine the “one country, two systems” principle, sparking off fears that the government could use the proposed law to silence critical voices”, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said. “There are also concerns that China might use it to expel foreign journalists covering the mainland from Hong Kong.”

China has aggressively tried to increase its control over independent media in Hong Kong. In 2017, journalists had voiced concerns over the deteriorating state of press freedom in the region, the increasing influence of the mainland through ownership of traditional media outlets, and an increase in self-censorship and attacks on journalists.

During the protests against the extradition bill, journalists became a target of the police, and several of them were injured, including one who was splashed with corrosive liquid and another who was permanently blinded in one eye after being hit in the face by a police projectile.

The Chinese government has also stepped up efforts to control media reporting on the mainland. On February 18 this year, China expelled three journalists of The Wall Street Journal in response to  an opinion piece published in the newspaper and written by an outside commentator. China’s authorities described the article as “racist” and said that it “denigrated” the country’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The Chinese foreign ministry said WSJ had refused to apologize for the article.

A month later, journalists working for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were asked to leave the country. A statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry said that the decision to expel journalists with U.S. citizenship working for these publications was in response to the U.S. government’s “outrageous” decision in December 2018 to designate Chinese media outlets as foreign missions and in February this year to impose a limit on the number of employees at these outlets.