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The free press in Hong Kong is under fire from the Chinese government, critics say

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, let's go to Hong Kong now. That's where a lot has changed since the Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law a year and a half ago. Scores of opposition politicians have been jailed. Pro-Democracy campaigners have been silenced. And NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch reports recently the government has stepped up actions against an institution that many say helped make the city the business and finance hub it is today.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Before sunrise one day late last month, Ronson Chan was asleep in bed, and he had a dream that there was someone at the door. Then his wife woke him up, and it turned out not to be a dream. It was the police knocking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONSON CHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: When he went to get the door, he livestreamed it. The police showed ID and warned him to stop videoing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

CHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

CHAN: The police collect my mobile phone - OK? - my new iPhone. And they collected my laptop computer and one iPad that I have seldom used.

RUWITCH: They had come as part of an investigation into Stand News, the nonprofit news outfit where Chan worked as an editor. Police also raided the company's offices, froze its assets and arrested seven people on suspicion of seditious publication. Critics say Stand News is the latest victim in a widening crackdown on pro-democracy voices in the former British colony. Its closure followed the shutdown in June of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong's most popular newspapers. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, and several editors were arrested. Chan is also chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. He chooses his words carefully when speaking about what's happening to avoid running afoul of the authorities.

CHAN: I would like to say that the environment has been changed.

RUWITCH: The environment has indeed changed. Journalists say pressure on the media increased sharply after the national security law went into effect in mid-2020.

STEPHEN VINES: Media organizations came under the axe very, very quickly, indeed.

RUWITCH: Stephen Vines was a presenter at Radio Television Hong Kong and a columnist for Apple Daily.

VINES: And sitting in the studios of the public broadcaster - that became apparent literally by the day.

RUWITCH: Management was swiftly replaced. And the new leaders, he says, were clear that they were there to rectify problems at the station. They vetted scripts and shooting schedules, and Vines says his own English-language current affairs show called "The Pulse" came under scrutiny.

VINES: From Day 1, we were told certain people could no longer be invited to participate in the program. Certain words could no longer be mentioned. A raft of new conditions were imposed.

RUWITCH: Pressure mounted, and then Apple Daily was closed, sending a shockwave through the city. One editor was even arrested at the airport a few days later trying to leave Hong Kong. That was the last straw for Vines. He moved to the U.K. after more than three decades of calling Hong Kong home.

VINES: I found myself living in a place where the road had suddenly been blocked and there was no way around it.

KEITH RICHBURG: Part of what made Hong Kong, you know, what it is, was the fact that it was open and free in terms of business, you know, in terms of a, you know, an independent legal system and in terms of its free press and free flow of information.

RUWITCH: Keith Richburg is president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong and director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

RICHBURG: So you take away some of the legal protections that people have here, and then also, if you take away the free flow of information, you know, you basically don't have Hong Kong anymore. You've got Shanghai.

RUWITCH: For its part, the government says it's not targeting journalists or media outlets, just people suspected of breaking the law. But officials have said there are limits to free speech everywhere, and Hong Kong is no exception. Richburg says the problem is it's not clear where the red lines are, and that's intentional. The work of the Hong Kong Journalists Association continues, trying to protect freedom of speech and press. And Chan, the chairman, says it'll continue even in the face of pressure and the possibility that someday the authorities may put them in the crosshairs.

CHAN: I cannot say when it is the last moment, but I would like to say that we are still standing here now.

RUWITCH: And, he says, they'll keep standing up for journalists as long as they can. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.