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US-funded Radio Free Asia closes its Hong Kong bureau over safety concerns under new security law

The president of U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia says its Hong Kong bureau has been closed because of safety concerns under a new national security law, deepening concerns about the city’s media freedoms

Kanis Leung
Friday 29 March 2024 13:53 GMT
Hong Kong Radio Free Asia
Hong Kong Radio Free Asia (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The president of U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia said its Hong Kong bureau has been closed because of safety concerns under a new national security law, deepening concerns about the city’s media freedoms.

Bay Fang, the president of RFA, said in a statement Friday that it will no longer have full-time staff in Hong Kong, although it would retain its official media registration.

Actions by Hong Kong authorities, including referring to RFA as a ‘foreign force,’ raise serious questions about our ability to operate in safety with the enactment of Article 23,” Fang said.

RFA's move is widely seen as a reflection of the city's narrowing space for a free press following the enactment of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, locally also known as Article 23 legislation.

Hong Kong, once seen as a bastion of media freedom in Asia, has already changed drastically since Beijing imposed a similar security law in 2020 following anti-government protests in 2019.

Since the introduction of the 2020 law, two local news outlets known for critical coverage of the government, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forced to shut down after the arrest of their senior management, including Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai.

Hong Kong ranked 140th out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index.

The new home-grown security law, which was enacted through an expedited legislative process last week, has expanded the government’s power to stamp out challenges to its rule.

It targets espionage, disclosing state secrets, and “colluding with external forces” to commit illegal acts, among others. Some offenses, such as treason and insurrection, carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The legislation has sparked worries among many journalists over a further decline in media freedom. They fear the broadly framed law could criminalize their day-to-day work.

RFA, funded by the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, has recently been under the Hong Kong government's attack. In January, police issued a letter to RFA and condemned it for quoting “false statements” by wanted activist Ted Hui that they said smeared the police force.

Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, is one of the overseas-based activists for whom police have offered awards of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,000) for information leading to their arrest. He is accused of requesting foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.

In February, Hong Kong's security minister, Chris Tang, said some comments quoted in reports by RFA about the new legislation were “fake” and “false."

He did not specify the comments or reports, but said they suggested that some provisions of the law were targeting the media. He insisted there were protections for the media in the legislation.

When asked whether the work of RFA is considered “external interference” or “espionage,” Tang said any violation of the law should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

The Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press for comment.

Fang said RFA's Hong Kong bureau has operated as a private news organization since its launch in 1996, and that its editorial independence was safeguarded by a firewall endorsed by the U.S. Congress.

“This restructuring means that RFA will shift to using a different journalistic model reserved for closed media environments," she said.

But she assured RFA's audience in Hong Kong and mainland China that its content would “continue without disruption.”

The authorities have not announced any arrests under the new law. But the government on Wednesday condemned the BBC for what it called an “extremely misleading report” about an activist who was blocked from a remission of sentence, or early release, under the law. Tang also wrote a letter to condemn an opinion piece by the New York Times.

Over the past months, articles by other international media outlets, including Washington Post and The Times, also have been criticized by officials.

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