Media Freedom and the Rule of Law|Yan Kei

蘋果日報 2021/06/22 10:33

The Normandy region has established many memorials and cemeteries of the World War II (WWII) battles. Many people visit this part of the world to remind themselves of the horror of WWII and war in general. They would visit the Normandy cemeteries where soldiers who died on D-Day were put to rest. When I visited the region, a French Catholic priest told me about a memorial often neglected with very few visitors, which was the La Cambe German War Cemetery where more than 21,000 soldiers were buried. One thing I learned is that while many memorials in the Normandy region honor the heroes from WWII, there is also an effort to respect the dignity of fallen soldiers from the Axis Powers. People tend to vilify their enemies and ignore them, but in this case, here, they commemorate them. Another memorial that is often overlooked by visitors of the Normandy region is the Mémorial des reporters de Bayeux, which is dedicated to journalists who were killed or assassinated, often by their own governments. Reporters Without Borders reported the following sad but true statistics for the first six months of 2021: 12 journalists and four media assistants killed; 322 journalists, 102 citizen journalists and 13 media assistants imprisoned.
I have known many courageous and selfless journalists in my life. Some were war correspondents who covered conflicts from Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Afghanistan. Some were political correspondents who covered political changes in Indonesia and Thailand during the 1990s. Some spent years in prison in countries like South Korea during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. As a matter of fact, some reporters were implicated in criminal cases in South Korea as recently as in 2017 for trying to document and publish the truth about the Kwangju (or Gwangju) Massacre in May 1980 and attacks on political dissidents in the 1980s. In essence, journalists take tremendous risks to research and prepare a report, putting their lives on the line during wartime and threatening their freedom at times of peace. Many great journalists have a unique DNA: they are willing to take risks in order to expose the truth, regardless of how sensitive it may be. Around the world, there are some who have been imprisoned and some who have even been killed as a result of this.
Hong Kong was possibly the only place in Asia where journalists were once able to report freely and fearlessly. For this reason, many international media organizations had established regional offices in Hong Kong, cultivating generations of quality, independent, professional and brave journalists in the city. Among them is Emily Lau Wai-hing who, back in December 1984, asked Margaret Thatcher a prophetic question about the future of Hong Kong. Until recent years, the city continued to enjoy a high degree of media freedom, which included the respect and acceptance of the publication of strong dissenting views. In fact, that was not considered something special as the culture of Hong Kong had always been one to openly debate, challenge and exchange strong views regarding socio-political issues. Nevertheless, after the enactment of the National Security Law, many journalists have learned to exercise caution, and in some ways, many have also begun to exercise self-censorship. Fear is in the air and journalists no longer feel the freedom they had enjoyed for so many decades.
The Apple Daily headquarters has been raided more than once by the police with the most recent one on June 14 of this year. It was too surreal to witness as this was unprecedented in Hong Kong. Hundreds of police officers were deployed for the operation and the effect was quite intimidating. Arrests were made, and assets were confiscated, including reporters’ hard disks. On the following day, Apple Daily printed 500,000 copies of its paper, over five-fold of its normal daily print run. Some people hit the streets to purchase the newspaper at as early as 5am or 6am, and some people reportedly bought 50 copies or more. That was the public reaction to the raid. In fact, many European media outlets reported this phenomenon quite prominently, which they viewed to be very unique. People around the world also saw the purchasing of multiple copies of the paper to show solidarity as a highly creative and productive, yet peaceful and perfectly legal way for the public to express their view, supporting the newspaper’s commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media. The international community will also watch closely how those arrested will be charged and tried. There is a high global expectation on the city’s legal system, particularly the judiciary system, that there will be a speedy and fair trial to all those who have been arrested. The actions of law enforcement and the legal institutions will themselves confirm that Hong Kong will continue to be a place governed by the rule of law.
Speaking of the rule of law, on 2014′s World Press Freedom Day, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published the “Rule of Law to Ensure Safety of Journalists and Combating Impunity.” The statement first reiterates the United Nations’ (UN) definition of the rule of law: “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.” A key challenge to many countries around the world is to ensure that their national security legislations are in compliance with international human rights norms and standards. On the other hand, UN human rights mechanisms have been developing those norms and standards to provide guidance for countries when drafting domestic legislation, including national security laws. It is for the countries to demonstrate whether they are to follow universal guidelines or not. On January 7, 2021, in response to the arrests of 53 political activists, academics, politicians and lawyers in Hong Kong, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) expressed concerns that, “the offence of subversion under the National Security Law is indeed being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life.” OHCHR and independent UN human rights experts have cautioned that “offences such as subversion under the National Security Law, passed in June 2020, are vague and overly broad, facilitating abusive or arbitrary implementation.” In other words, many legal experts would argue that, in general, when a law is clear and precise, there is less likelihood that it would be wrongfully applied.
In UNESCO’s 2014 statement, it emphasizes that “the rule of law is fundamental to the stability and smooth functioning of society,” reaffirming that “only when the rule of law is respected can citizens have confidence in democratic process...” In that context, the statement refers to the significant function of the news media “as the sector of society most able to promote vigilance towards the rule of law, especially through fostering investigative journalism, promoting the openness of court, legislative and administrative proceedings, access to officials and to public documents.” UNESCO further states that, “the government has a key role here in protecting the independence and pluralism of the news media…” and security must especially be guaranteed to journalists, media workers, and social media producers. UNESCO urges the government to protect journalists from attacks for their use of freedom of expression. This means, governments need to plan a protective role for journalists.
In present-day Hong Kong, dissent is seen as something sensitive. However, in the past, dissent was seen as a norm and a hallmark of Hong Kong for decades. A strong government should embrace dissenting views and use them to their advantage to improve economically, socially and legally. With increasing self-censorship, uncertainty and fear, freedom of the media seems to have become something of the past! Hong Kong authorities need to recognize that the prosperity and success of the city are in part due to progressive and free media that used to report fearlessly. It was precisely because of such freedom that the world loved Hong Kong. Let the world continue to love and embrace this city.
(Yan Kei, Advocate for criminal justice reforms)
The opinions of the writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board.
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