William Yang was on the ground covering Hong Kong for several months during the height of the anti-extradition bill protests. He’s used to being on the frontlines. Now, because of COVID-19, budget cuts and the National Security Law, he is stuck in Taiwan.

“I have been advised by all my employers that I should try not to go back to Hong Kong just yet,” he said.

A Taiwanese journalist and correspondent for Germany’s Deutsche Welle News, Yang is one of the many journalists who hamstrung by the recent political changes in Hong Kong.

Once a bastion of press freedom, Hong Kong is now adopting the repressive atmosphere of many of its neighbors.

“What’s going in Hong Kong now is very similar to what’s going on and a lot of other countries in Asia or other parts of the world as well,” said Keith Richburg, former correspondent for the Washington Post and now journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Governments in Asia are making a move against dissidents. In the Philippines, journalist Maria Ressa and her news organization Rappler have been under attack by President Rodrigo Duterte. In Singapore, the government passed a law to combat fake news, but many worry it’s to silence criticism of the government.

When Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997, its rights were protected in the Basic Law, a constitutional document. The Basic Law protected Hong Kong’s rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, which many worried would be infringed under Chinese rule.

“Nobody wants to go to jail.”

Keith Richburg

“Under the British, it was a completely different political system, a more open or liberal place,” Richburg said. “There was generally widespread press freedom and respect for the press.”

Things have changed since Richburg was a correspondent in Hong Kong in the mid-late 90s. Over the past few years, the Chinese government has extended its powers over the semi-autonomous city, but the changes have been more pronounced just this year with the recently passed National Security Law. The law makes it easier to crack down on protestors and reduce the city autonomy.

Richburg said that the government office of immigration services is using its visa policy to restrict the number of journalists in the city. That’s something brand new to Hong Kong.

And in September, the Chinese government stopped renewing press credentials for foreign journalists working for American news organizations, according to the New York Times.

Also see other media outlets considering sending their journalists elsewhere or seeking possible alternative plans in case their visas get cancelled or their renewal requests get denied because that used to be the case in China, Yang said. The Chinese Foreign Ministry controls the power of approving, ending or revoking a press visa, which has now become the new reality here in Hong Kong.

“I know a lot of people who are thinking of leaving.”

Stephen Vines

That could further reduce the ranks of reporters in Hong Kong.

“I know a lot of people are thinking of leaving who are journalists,” said Stephen Vines, reporter for the public broadcasting station Radio Television Hong Kong. “I mean, they have a practical reason for going, which is they know that that there is no prospect of them gaining employment in journalism in Hong Kong any longer.”

 “People’s hearts not being changed,” Vines said, “There is a distinct possibility that there will be mass emigration.”

In May 2020, Britain announced it may offer a pathway to citizenship for almost three million Hong Kong residents. Other countries, including Taiwan, Australia and the United States have considered opening their borders to Hong Kong refugees.

Reporters who are still able to work in Hong Kong may resort to self-censorship, Richburg fears.

“It’s going to continue to be probably the biggest problem because journalists don’t want to get in trouble,” he said. “I mean, nobody wants to go to jail. Nobody wants to lose their job. And so, they will very specifically now decide to avoid, I think, sensitive issues.”

News organizations are becoming more careful about how they cover Hong Kong.

“Even publications that are quite outspoken [are] very cautious, particularly in discussing topics such as Hong Kong independence, which is a red line that sends the pro-China people into a frenzy,” said Chris Lau, reporter for South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong is just one example of how press freedom could deteriorate in places historically seen as democratic. While the future of press freedom is uncertain, it hasn’t stopped journalists from doing their job.

Hong Kong people have taken pride in their ability to organize, protest, publish, start their own publications and ability to criticize the government for decades, Yang said.

Will that continue to be rolled back? Here are some key developments to watch:

  • Hong Kong has postponed its 2020 elections for a year, citing COVID-19 safety concerns. If and when Hong Kong does hold elections, the outcome could affect the political makeup of the Legislative Council, the legislative government in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy advocates were hoping to use the momentum from the protests to gain seats in the Legislative Council.
  • In August 2020, pro-democracy activists Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow were arrested by the Hong Kong police. They were released on bail a few days after their arrest, but it is just one example of how the National Security Law has already suppressed activists in Hong Kong.
  • Hong Kong has continued to extend its restriction on assemblies that limits a gathering to four people. Earlier this month, Hong Kong police arrested protesters on China’s National Day.
This multimedia package was prepared by Matt Schmittdiel, Zephyrus Li and Annie T.H. Le