Hong Kong official says media should take steps to boost its credibility

Hong Kong’s second-in-command has called on the media to “ensure its credibility,” amid growing concerns over curbs on press freedom in the city, local media reported on Wednesday.

Chief secretary John Lee told government broadcaster RTHK that “fake information that’s destructive must be stopped,” according to an RTHK news story.

“There are two ways to deal with the problem. One is to manage it, and the other is to criminalize it,” Lee said. “Personally, I think we should first try to manage it because we want to strike a balance.”

“If the industry has self-discipline and introduce[s] regulations as well as a management or punishment mechanism, will the government still need to introduce laws? We can study further,” he said.

Since the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020, police have engaged in an ongoing and citywide crackdown on all forms of public dissent and political opposition, with election rules changed to ensure only pro-CCP candidates can run and dozens of former opposition lawmakers now behind bars on “subversion” charges.

Next Digital, which published the now-shuttered pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was raided by national security police and its senior journalists and founder Jimmy Lai charged with “collusion with foreign powers” in connection with calls in the newspaper for international sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials over the crackdown on dissent.

Lee’s comments on Wednesday came amid an outcry from press freedom groups and industry associations over the Hong Kong government’s recent refusal to renew the working visa of Sue-Lin Wong, the Hong Kong correspondent for The Economist.

Wong, who is Australian, wasn’t in Hong Kong at the time of the decision, and is currently unable to return there.

According to a Nov. 12 statement by The Economist’s editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the authorities gave no reason for the decision, while Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam declined to comment on individual cases, saying on Nov. 16 that the city has “sovereignty” to make such decisions.

“Hong Kong’s refusal to renew a visa for The Economist’s correspondent Sue-Lin Wong shreds repeated claims by the Hong Kong government that it upholds press freedom,” Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement.

“Hong Kong authorities should reverse this decision immediately and allow journalists—local and international—to work without interference.”

The denial of a visa to Wong came after similar refusals issued to New York Times reporter Chris Buckley and Hong Kong Free Press editor Aaron McNicholas last year, and to the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet in 2018.

Obstacles, delays

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong said it was “deeply concerned” over Wong’s treatment, which it said “further highlights the concerns raised in the FCC’s survey of correspondent and journalist members on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong published on Nov. 5.”

It said 24 percent of respondents to the survey said they had experienced “slight delays or obstacles” in obtaining visas, while 29 percent said they had experienced “considerable obstacles or delays.”

“We again call on the government to provide concrete assurances that applications for employment visas and visa extensions will be handled in a timely manner with clearly-stated requirements and procedures, and that the visa process for journalists will not be politicized or weaponized,” the FCC said in a statement on its website.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said the city shouldn’t deny work visas to foreign journalists without proper justification.

“There has been a marked rise in the number of foreign journalists whose visa extensions were rejected without reason,” it said in a statement. “The HKJA is concerned that these are not isolated events, but a tightening grip over foreign media in Hong Kong.”

It said such decision would mean foreign media organizations will likely relocate to other Asian cities.

Chief executive Carrie Lam said visas are issued at the discretion of governments anywhere.

“I’ve been denied a visa into the United States of America. I would dispute that, but that was the autonomy and the discretion of the U.S. government,” she said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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