Repression of freedom of speech doesn’t happen in a vacuum – we must pressure those who seek to erode it

When we are united, as governments and as individuals, we can show those who would silence it that the truth is a force that cannot be stopped

<p>Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is currently serving a prison sentence</p>

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is currently serving a prison sentence

Freedom of speech is a dangerous job”: these are the words that Hong Kong media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai sent in a letter to his staff at the pro-democracy news site Apple Daily from prison.

This was a couple of weeks ago, when Lai was awaiting sentencing for two of several charges against him. He has since been sentenced to 14 months in jail and has more cases pending, including accusations of foreign collusion and endangering national security under Hong Kong’s controversial national security law.

The draconian new legislation has been widely condemned as a lever for rapid and extreme political repression in the city. The reality is that Lai’s biggest crime, I believe in at least in the eyes of the state, is that he disagrees with the Chinese government. His story is one of many in the media industry in Hong Kong, suffering under a regime that has drastically curtailed press freedoms over the past two years – bulldozing human rights and humanitarian principles in the process.

When I moved to Bangkok as an Australian volunteer abroad in 1995, Hong Kong’s media was seen as the predominant free English-language press in the region. As I began working for the Bangkok Post a couple of years later, the then editor had a vision that with the British “handover” of Hong Kong (such a disturbing word that for the fate of millions of people and a community with a clear identity and culture – a reminder of so many disastrous colonial legacies), his publication might come to replace the South China Morning Post in its lead role.

The financial crash at the end of the Nineties, and the tragic direction of Thai politics in subsequent decades have put paid to that, but the Hong Kong media’s position is now under extreme pressure from Beijing. Hong Kong’s police chief recently even gave an ominous warning, that journalists could be investigated for reporting “false news”.

In this Orwellian new normal, the police force now has the right to determine which media organisations are “internationally recognised and reputable”, and will not recognise accreditations other than those provided by the government.

The all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, of which I’m co-chair, recently heard from three journalists, two still in Hong Kong. They felt obliged to appear anonymously on our video call, not showing their faces and using technology to disguise their voices, and they spoke of a culture of fear, uncertainty, and a sense that the possibilities of genuinely free and open reporting have been squeezed down to a vanishingly small space, requiring truly exceptional bravery and risk-taking from those still practicing it. Many, understandably, are self-censoring.

Award-winning reporter Bao Choy, who was convicted on two counts of making false statements, is a prime example. Choy was investigating an attack at a Hong Kong metro station in 2019, to which the police took more than half an hour to respond and, when they did finally arrive, made no arrests. The force's actions were widely criticised.

When we are united, as governments and as individuals, we can show those who would silence it that the truth is a force that cannot be stopped. Across the east and southeast Asian region, most obviously in Hong Kong, Burma and Thailand, but also in Malaysia and Singapore (as I was commenting in the House last week), the journalists and commentators who are essential to democracy and the rule of law are under pressure. They need to know that we are watching out for them, paying attention, and will stand up for them.

Some with economic interests will say we should stay silent in the interests of profit, but no economy can continue to operate effectively without the rule of law, for which journalistic scrutiny and independent oversight is essential. That’s been the very basis of Hong Kong’s economic role.

Some are – rightly – concerned about the need for Chinese engagement in the Cop climate talks. But it is just as essential for China as it is for us to have a successful Cop. Standing strong on our principles is only likely to strengthen our hand in dealing with China in other arenas and on other issues.

This World Press Freedom Day, there are places all around the world where freedom of speech is still, as Lai puts it, a dangerous job. But repression isn’t created in a vacuum. To support journalists being targeted in Hong Kong, we must make sure the authorities know that the world is watching.

For the UK government, with its special responsibility as the signatory to the joint declaration, that means holding those responsible to account by imposing sanctions. Otherwise, we must question the UK government’s commitment to both Hong Kong and the concept of press freedom.

I also invite everyone around the world who values press freedom to join the Stand with Hong Kong Twitter storm on World Press Freedom Day, Monday 3 May at 12pm GMT, by tweeting with the hashtag #SaveHongKongPress

Baroness Bennett is a member of the House of Lords and former leader of the Green Party

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