One year after taking effect, China’s National Security Law for Hong Kong has confirmed analysts’ worst fears. Despite claims from Hong Kong officials that its impact would be small, the law has become a direct threat to journalism, leading to raids on newsrooms, arrests of editors, and the closure of prominent pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

The law criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces – but what constitutes such acts is vaguely defined, effectively granting authorities a free hand to punish those who don’t toe Beijing’s line.

Fear and self-censorship are growing as a result. “The systematic dismantling of the city’s former role as a safe haven for journalists will continue”, a Hong Kong media expert told IPI.

Erosion of human rights guarantees

The law was drafted – in complete secrecy – in response to the 2019/2020 protests that rocked Hong Kong over a bill that, if passed, would have allowed authorities to extradite suspects in criminal cases to mainland China. Hong Kong eventually withdrew the bill, but the protests evolved into a wider pro-democracy movement.

China, fearing further unrest, moved to pass a security law for Hong Kong, which previously enjoyed freedoms that China didn’t thanks to the “one country, two systems” arrangement agreed after Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The Chinese government claims the law protects the people of Hong Kong’s safety, property, and basic rights and freedoms and has established a security office in Hong Kong in order to oversee enforcement of the law.

But in fact, the measure amounts to the imposition of mainland China’s authoritarian rule on Hong Kong, eroding the Special Administrative Region’s human rights guarantees. Chinese security officers now have the ability to take law enforcement action in Hong Kong for the first time and are able to transfer cases to China for review.

A fast-moving storm

Critical journalism has now become a risky enterprise. While authorities may still tolerate a level of independent reporting, critical discussion of topics especially sensitive to Beijing – including Taiwan, Xinjiang, and foreign sanctions – will be a red line, experts told IPI.

The move to quiet dissenting voices has progressed quickly, and Beijing is emboldened by the law’s success so far, one expert said, leaving the extent of the crackdown an open question.

One of the most notable cases of persecution under the law is that of Hong Kong media entrepreneur and activist Jimmy Lai, who was the publisher of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. Lai was charged with conspiracy, fraud, and support of the pro-democracy protest movement and is serving a 20-month prison sentence.

Hong Kong security officers have since raided Apple Daily’s offices, arrested several of the newspaper’s executives, and seized computer equipment. The newspaper was forced to close this month after officials froze a significant amount of its financial assets.

“This is a systematic effort to basically move everybody down the ladder in terms of what they’re willing to report”, Mark Simon, an adviser to Lai, told IPI.

The effects of the law came faster and harder than expected, with security forces reaching into the very heart of newsrooms, one Hong Kong journalist said.

“We thought the storm was coming, but the damaging power of it came as a shock”, the person said.

Uncertain new era for journalism

The changes are far-reaching. Journalists must now be registered with the Hong Kong government in order to be recognized as members of the press, previously public databases are harder to access, and government surveillance has increased. The independence of Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, is also being undermined.

Meanwhile, the suspected next targets of the law are online news organizations. Pro-democracy Stand News announced it was removing all articles published before May from its website after outlets across the city were sent anonymous messages with threats and lists of their staff.

The erosion of democratic checks and balances in Hong Kong has left independent media further isolated, unable to count on protection from lawmakers or the judiciary, observers note. Academic freedom is also under increasing threat.

Despite journalists’ growing fears and a consensus that press freedom will suffer further, a commitment to reporting the news remains.

Hong Kong Free Press editor Tom Grundy wrote this week that while the future was uncertain, “My staff and I are among several independent outlets that are still around. We are getting on with work, and we are staying put”.

Another media analyst said journalism would continue in the wake of the law and Apple Daily’s closure, albeit in a different form.

“The void will be filled – although in the new era it will look nothing like what citizens have previously enjoyed”, the person said. “With new restrictions on access to previously public databases it will indeed be more difficult for investigative journalists, but good journalism still happens in repressive and illiberal regimes.”