Hong Kong’s fugitive law could put press freedom at new low, says Reporters Without Borders

Alvin Lum
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Hong Kong’s fugitive law could put press freedom at new low, says Reporters Without Borders

A proposed change to extradition law threatens the work of journalists and could drag Hong Kong’s press freedom rating to new lows lasting decades, a global media watchdog warned on Thursday.

Reporters Without Borders said Hongkongers should do all they could to oppose a government proposal to allow the transfer of fugitives on a case-by-case basis to jurisdictions the city lacks an extradition deal with, including mainland China. The group said the plan posed a threat to the rule of law.

“It may be the major concern for Hong Kong journalists and bloggers for a very long time, because it will make it legal for China to pick out any residents or foreigners they like,” said Cédric Alviani, the organisation’s East Asia bureau director.

“Had we opened a bureau in Hong Kong, we would be worried, because there would be a direct threat to our staff and myself.”

The impact would not be felt overnight but foreign media agencies could be put off setting up in Hong Kong, Alviani said, adding there was no guarantee of a fair trial in mainland China and the rule of law was questionable.

He cited the alleged abductions of booksellers Lam Wing-kee and Gui Minhai in 2015. The pair were involved with Hong Kong book companies selling titles critical of state leaders.

Gui disappeared from Thailand and later appeared on a televised address in mainland China, admitting to wrongdoing, while Lam claimed he had been put through eight months of “mental torture” north of the border.

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“It’s important Hong Kong residents keep in mind the rule of law does not suffer exceptions,” Alviani said. “When there is a red line, that’s not the rule of law anymore. Especially when the red line is blurry.”

The government hopes to push through the legal amendment by July but filibustering from the pro-democracy camp has ensured a slow start.

The change aims to plug a loophole exposed by a homicide case last year involving Hongkonger Chan Tong-kai, wanted in Taiwan over the murder of his pregnant girlfriend.

Chan faces a prison sentence in Hong Kong for money laundering and is due to be sentenced on April 29, leaving the government racing against time to amend the law.

A Security Bureau spokeswoman said the bill was focused on serious crimes and “will not affect Hong Kong’s press freedom and freedom of speech”.

An extradition request would require the act to constitute a crime in Hong Kong, she added.

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The Hong Kong Journalists Association has voiced opposition to the proposal, citing cases in the past in which reporters in mainland China were harassed or prosecuted.

Hong Kong dropped three places to 73rd in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index, released on Thursday, which ranks 180 countries and territories. The city remained labelled a “problematic situation”.

Hong Kong has fallen from 18th in 2002 to 58th in 2013, before first hitting its record low of 73rd in 2017.

Reporters Without Borders said Beijing’s increasing political influence was being felt across the region from Taiwan to Singapore. The finding echoed a recent survey by the Journalists Association which also said press freedom was in its worst state in the city’s history.

Most critics have pointed to the expulsion last year of British journalist Victor Mallet of the Financial Times. The Hong Kong authorities never explained the reason behind the move, but it was widely linked to Mallet’s role chairing a lunch talk by separatist Andy Chan Ho-tin at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in August.

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“That’s problematic. It showed respecting Hong Kong law is not enough to stay out of trouble, you have to guess where this blurry and floating red line is,” club president Florence de Changy said.

“Saying Hong Kong is better than Singapore is no consolation,” she said.

Singapore remained at 151st place in the 2019 press freedom index. South Korea overtook Taiwan to claim 41st spot, the highest-ranked place in Asia. Mainland China was 177th, falling one place. Reporters Without Borders warned authorities against using new technologies to exert tighter control over news information and surveillance.

Norway, Finland and Sweden topped the list, while the United States fell three places to 48th due to President Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the media, the group said.

It labelled the situation in America “problematic” for the first time.

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