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US-funded Radio Free Asia closes Hong Kong bureau over security concerns under new security law

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HONG KONG (AP) — The president of U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia said Friday that its Hong Kong bureau had been closed for security reasons under a new national security law, reinforcing concerns about media freedoms in the city.

Bay Fang, RFA’s chairman, said in a statement that the company would no longer have full-time staff in Hong Kong, although it would retain its official registration as a media outlet.

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“The Hong Kong authorities’ actions, including referring to the FRG as a ‘foreign force,’ raise serious questions about our ability to operate safely with the enactment of Article 23,” Fang said.

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Surveillance cameras are seen as a visitor looks out at Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, Monday, March 11, 2024. The president of U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia said its Hong Kong office had been closed due to security concerns under a new national security law. growing concerns about media freedoms in the city. Bay Fang, chairman of RFA, said in a statement on Friday (March 29, 2024) that it would no longer have full-time staff in Hong Kong, although it would retain its official registration as a media outlet. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)

RFA’s move is widely seen as a reflection of the city’s shrinking space for a free press following the enactment of the National Security Preservation Ordinance, also known locally as the article legislation 23.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed concern over RFA’s shutdown and said the new law “represents not only a significant escalation in the efforts of Hong Kong authorities Kong and Beijing to suppress free speech,” but also “undermines media freedom and the public’s ability to obtain fact-based information.” »

Cédric Alviani, director of the Asia-Pacific bureau of Reporters Without Borders, described the withdrawal of the channel as “a consequence of the dissuasive effect exerted on the media” by the new security law.

“We urge democracies to increase pressure on Chinese authorities so that press freedom is fully restored in the territory,” Alviani said.

Hong Kong, once considered a bastion of media freedom in Asia, has already changed dramatically since Beijing imposed a similar security law in 2020, following anti-government protests in 2019.

Since the introduction of the 2020 law, two local media outlets known for their critical government coverage, Apple Daily and Stand News, have been forced to shut down after the arrest of their top executives, including Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily.

Hong Kong ranks 140th out of 180 countries and territories in the latest World Press Freedom Index established by Reporters Without Borders.

The new national security law, which was passed last week after a fast-track legislative process, expanded the government’s power to eliminate challenges to its power.

It targets, among other things, espionage, disclosure of state secrets and “collusion with external forces” to commit illegal acts. Some crimes, such as treason and insurrection, carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

This legislation has raised concerns among many journalists about a further decline in media freedom. They fear that this law, of general scope, will criminalize their daily work.

RFA, funded by the US Congress through the US Agency for Global Media, has recently come under attack from the Hong Kong government. In January, police sent a letter to RFA and condemned it for citing “false statements” from wanted activist Ted Hui that they said had defamed the police force.

Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, is one of the overseas-based activists who police have offered a reward of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,000) for information leading to their arrest . He is accused of asking foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.

In February, Hong Kong Security Minister Chris Tang said some comments cited in RFA reports regarding the new legislation were “wrong” and “untrue.”

He did not elaborate on the comments or reports, but said they suggested certain provisions of the law targeted media outlets. He insisted the legislation included protections for the media.

When asked whether RFA’s work was considered “external interference” or “espionage,” Tang said any violations of the law should be judged on a case-by-case basis. If anyone deliberately uses false information to defame the government’s legislative work, he said he must let Hong Kong people see clearly the intentions of these “external forces” and those who fled and want to endanger security from Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government declined to comment on the operational decisions of individual organizations on Friday. But he condemned “all alarmist and defamatory remarks” against the new law in an email response.

Many other countries also have safety laws. “To single out Hong Kong and suggest that journalists would only feel concerns when operating here and not in other countries would be extremely biased, if not outrageous,” he said.

The government has insisted that the new law only targets a very small minority of people who endanger national security and that most journalists will not unwittingly violate it.

Fang said RFA’s Hong Kong office had operated as a private news organization since its launch in 1996 and its editorial independence was protected by a firewall approved by the US Congress.

“This restructuring means that RFA will move to a different journalistic model, reserved for closed media environments,” she said.

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But she assured RFA’s audiences in Hong Kong and mainland China that its content would “continue without interruption.”

Hong Kong authorities have not announced any arrests under the new law. But the government on Wednesday condemned the BBC for what it called “extremely misleading reporting” about an activist who was not entitled to a reduced sentence, or early release, under the law. Tang also wrote a letter condemning a New York Times opinion article.

In recent months, articles published by other international media outlets, including the Washington Post and the Times, have also been criticized by officials.

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