Journalists and lawyers in Hong Kong are scrambling to adapt as Chinese authorities set up the apparatus to enforce a controversial national security law, including appointing a hardline party official to head a new security agency.
Zheng Yanxiong, who is best known for tackling protests on the mainland, is to run the office established under the law that empowers mainland security agents to operate in Hong Kong openly and unbound for the first time.
The law’s immediate target was the pro-democracy protest movement that has engulfed the city for more than a year, but its provisions are so broadly defined they have prompted many others in Hong Kong to question whether their day-to-day work now puts them at risk.
The Geneva-based UN human rights office on Friday expressed concern at what it called the “vague and overly broad” definition of some of the offences listed under the law.
No one in Hong Kong had seen the law, which targets secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, until it came into effect at 11pm on Tuesday.
Some foreign freelance journalists who have covered the protests are considering leaving Hong Kong, and news outlets based in the city have sought urgent advice on whether simply quoting or photographing now-banned independence slogans would open them to prosecution.
The news outlet RTHK, which has been under growing pressure from the Hong Kong government, asterisked the word “liberate” in a tweet linking to its article on the banning of one slogan on Friday.
Tom Grundy, the editor of the English-language Hong Kong Free Press, said his news website was taking steps to ensure its survival and the safety of sources.
“We expect to experience legal and bureaucratic terrorism in an effort to drain our resources, more than arrest or direct censorship – but we’ll see,” said Grundy.
The title is assessing how to accept donations from international readers and exploring the establishment of back-up entities overseas if the Hong Kong environment becomes too restrictive.
Grundy said some sources were declining interviews, so it will loosen current guidelines around pseudonyms, but is resisting requests from opinion writers to publish anonymously. Reporters will be allowed to use a staff byline for some news stories with legal concerns, and already use only work-approved encrypted devices and apps.
“But we are otherwise sticking with our new code of ethics and international standards – we don’t intend to blur people’s faces in candid photos shot in public, or act any differently when it comes to sourcing and reporting,” Grundy said. He said it hoped to resist data requests by authorities.
“It’s not so much about asking what we can and cannot print, but more that we may never get answers as to what’s acceptable. Having vague red lines which journalists have to somehow navigate will just cause self-censorship, so we will look to resist that.”
Online, journalists in private chat groups have been sharing tips on stronger VPNs (virtual private networks) and more encrypted platforms, and discussing how to safely give an interview to an overseas radio station. Some are exploring getting rid of protest paraphernalia collected in the course of their work, or at least shipping it out of Hong Kong.
“You’re just going into a sea of unknown, no one knows how far the laws can be stretched,” said one.
The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club has sought urgent advice about the potential impact of the laws on journalists. It noted article 54 of the law requires authorities take “necessary measures to strengthen the management of and services for … news agencies of foreign countries”.
A Hong Kong human rights lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said many in his profession were “seriously worried” and afraid to speak to international press or international NGOs.
“Because of the massive width of the provisions … and also for defence lawyers in particular there is a huge worry about whether legal privilege still exists in relation to NSL cases,” he said.
He said the law seemed to allow police to “search any premises whatsoever, and require any person to provide information to the police about national security crimes. It does not include any carve-out for lawyers and legal privilege, which would be a complete and shocking reversal of one of the most important legal protections in the common law world.”
He said he had begun using more protective measures like VPNs and encrypted emails, and that many lawyers were erasing social media accounts and deleting chat histories.
“The situation will sooner or later be like the mainland, so we will become like mainland defence lawyers who have to worry about ourselves being arrested just for defending our clients.
“I just don’t want to be overly worried and live in fear all the time. Because once fear takes root in our minds, we can’t live up to what we want for ourselves.”
Since the security law came into effect some of the city’s “Lennon walls” have been torn down or replaced with blank paper in a last-ditch act of defiance, activists have asked journalists to delete message histories, encrypted communication channels have shut down, and people have begun moving to different messaging platforms.
The administrator of a protest-affiliated social media account said Wednesday’s protests showed the group of demonstrators known as frontliners were largely gone.
“They understand the consequences and are not willing to risk their lives,” they said. “It’s not impossible that the large-scale street protests may be quashed by this law and it’s likely protests will go underground.”
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