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In Hong Kong, freedom of expression is shrinking fast | Freedom of the Press News



In 2018, the late chef, traveller and television personality, Anthony Bourdain, made a programme about Hong Kong in which he interviewed members of a local post-punk band. One of them spoke of concerns about disappearing freedoms and the lack of venues to perform in. But, they declared, they were free to say and play anything they wanted.

By mid-2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had decimated Hong Kong’s live music scene, and a Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL) meant citizens were no longer free to say anything they wanted. Many protest slogans had been banned, a Hong Kong “national anthem” forbidden, and protesters had been arrested for holding up blank pieces of paper.

The NSL is as sweeping as it is vague: It outlaws secession, subversion, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces”; it forbids people from inciting hatred against the central and Hong Kong governments; it establishes a national security office in Hong Kong outside of local jurisdiction and it gives law enforcement officers expanded powers, including wire-tapping and conducting surveillance without a court order.

The government said very few people would be targeted, but I saw friends and acquaintances quit longstanding general discussion groups on WhatsApp even before the law was enacted. By the time it came into effect an hour shy of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to the People’s Republic of China, many groups had disappeared altogether.

The space for open expression of dissent has shrunk dramatically in the seven months since then. Earlier this month, police said 97 people had been arrested for breaching the NSL since it came into force and more arrests are being announced every few days.

The police chief denied this constituted a “white terror”, but many Hongkongers now live in fear that their words could get them in trouble, or even cost them their liberty. The use of VPNs and encrypted messaging apps – which had started becoming popular during the 2019 protests – have surged.

But even as people in Hong Kong seek ways to express themselves without running afoul of the NSL’s red lines, recent government actions suggest freedom of expression and freedom of and access to information are only going to shrink further.

At the end of January, the government launched a month-long consultation on plans requiring people to provide their full names, date of birth, and copies of their identity documents when buying mobile phone SIM cards, bringing the city in line with rules in mainland China. Each person would also be limited to having three SIM cards. Officials say the move is necessary to tackle crime, but unregistered pre-paid SIM cards are widely used by activists and by protesters, as well as those who are concerned about their privacy when expressing political opinions, especially under the NSL.

A week later, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a “bold” slate of measures in her first address to the city’s legislature since four pro-democracy legislators were disqualified for “threatening national security” and over a dozen others quit in protest. The measures she announced included plans to tackle “fake news” and doxxing but could involve measures making it harder to access public records, such as vehicle registrations, property transactions and corporate filings – standard tools used by journalists conducting public interest investigations. Lam also hinted the privacy commissioner could get greater powers to order offending websites and platforms to remove content.

This has spooked those for whom a free internet and press are central to Hong Kong’s identity as “not just another Chinese city”. Despite the attempts to remake the city politically and culturally, Hongkongers cling to the fact that they can freely access platforms and websites that are banned in mainland China.

The prospect of increased internet regulation follows news that a Hong Kong internet service provider (ISP) had blocked access to a pro-democracy website in January to comply with the NSL, the first time a Hong Kong ISP has done so. The law empowers police to force ISPs to take “disabling action” if the content may endanger national security.

The blocked site documents incidents from the protests that grew from the anti-extradition bill movement of 2019, but also published personal information and photographs of police officers and pro-government individuals it claims has harassed protesters. There is at least one pro-government site that publishes personal information of pro-democracy figures and even journalists they see as supportive of protesters, but it has not been blocked.

Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told me while he does not agree with the practice of doxxing, he thinks “this is not an NSL matter, it is a privacy matter, and using the NSL in this context to block and censor the website is not appropriate”.

Tsui says he worries about the future of the free internet in Hong Kong. “The NSL has been used and abused offline to silence dissent,” he says, “and the fear is that the NSL will now be used to silence speech online too.”

This would deal a serious blow to a city that has been watching its freedoms erode at a frightening pace. For Chris Yeung, the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the free internet, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary, are the “ultimate test” of Hong Kong’s survival as a city that is still recognisable as Hong Kong.

As Yeung says and I have described elsewhere, newsroom self-censorship has increased and sources have clammed up in the wake of the NSL. Attacks on press freedom continue. Last month, officers from the police national security unit visited four local news organisations and demanded they hand over materials, with the unusual order that they do not disclose the nature of the information requested.

News reports say police were seeking materials related to candidates who stood in a pro-democracy camp primary election last year. A total of 53 candidates and activists involved in the election were arrested for allegedly violating the NSL on the same day.

“In previous cases, media could go to court to challenge requests and ask for more details, but under NSL they can’t do so … the media have no alternative to cooperate, no chance to appeal or question,” Yeung told me. “With zero checks and balances – it all depends on the self-restraint of law enforcement bodies, but we have seen zero restraint so far.”

Taken on their own, each of these incidents could be seen as worrying developments for freedom of expression and information in Hong Kong. Taken together, it shows a city that is becoming unrecognisable. For Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms, Yeung says “the worst is yet to come”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Iran and world powers hint at talks over nuclear deal | Nuclear Energy News



Tehran, Iran – Unofficial talks between Iran and world powers that signed an ailing 2015 nuclear deal appear to be the only way forward as neither side seems willing to take the first step.

Iran says the United States, which in 2018 unilaterally abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), must first return to full compliance under the accord by lifting all economic sanctions it imposed.

President Joe Biden has said former US leader Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed, but nevertheless insists Iran must first reverse steps to reduce its commitments under the deal in response to the sanctions.

This week, Iran said it is considering an offer by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to hold unofficial talks with the P4+1 – China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany minus the US – that would also include the US as a “guest”.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said it is likely officials from Tehran and Washington would sit together at an informal meeting hosted by the EU in the coming weeks.

“There, they are likely to agree to an interim set of measures to buy more time for negotiating a timetable for a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA,” he told Al Jazeera.

The meeting was called in light of Iran’s latest move on Tuesday to stop voluntarily implementing the Additional Protocol – a document that gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) broad inspection authorities of Iranian nuclear sites.

In a statement after Iran stopped providing the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog with short-notice inspection capabilities, the three European signatories of the nuclear deal called the move “dangerous”.

“It will significantly constrain the IAEA’s access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information,” the E3 foreign ministers said. “It will also constrain the IAEA’s ability to monitor and verify Iran’s nuclear programme and nuclear-related activities.”

Three-month window

But an agreement Iran’s government reached with the IAEA on Sunday seems to have bought more time for diplomacy.

After IAEA General Director Rafael Grossi travelled to Tehran, the two sides agreed Iran would continue monitoring activities of its nuclear sites, but would not hand over the camera tapes.

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that if the US fails to lift sanctions on Iran within those three months, the data would be permanently deleted, leaving a gap in the IAEA’s monitoring of the country’s nuclear activities.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said earlier this week the US has imposed 1,600 sanctions on Iran, all of which need to be lifted to restore the nuclear deal.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also said this week Iran could boost its uranium enrichment to a purity of 60 percent from the current 20 percent if the country needs to, but stressed his nation does not seek nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, Iran’s ambassador in Geneva told the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament it is up to the United States to make the first move.

“The onus is on the offending party to return, restart, and compensate for the damages as well as to reassure that they would not renege again,” Ambassador Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh said.

‘Increasing suspicions’

Vaez said the IAEA agreement “deferred a crisis that could have derailed diplomacy before it even had a chance of getting off the ground”.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the time bought by the deal could open the way for all sides to negotiate – and implement – a road map back to JCPOA compliance.

She told Al Jazeera “it won’t be the end of the world but it won’t be good” if the nuclear deal signatories fail to come to an agreement in those three months.

“Iran will continue to take steps out of the JCPOA and to reduce cooperation with the IAEA, increasing suspicions that it is working on weapons,” Slavin said of the ramifications of a no-deal scenario.

“Iranians will continue to suffer from the impact of sanctions. Iranian politicians opposed to the deal and to any relaxation of tensions with the West will get stronger, and Iran will likely also be more difficult to deal with in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, et cetera.”

Presidential elections loom

The fact that the June presidential elections in Iran are fast approaching only adds to the pressure to find a solution to the nuclear deal dilemma.

President Hassan Rouhani, who won his office by promising to engage with the West and improve Iran’s economy by ending isolation, is nearing the end of his second term.

It is widely believed a conservative or a hardliner – who could come from a military background – will emerge victorious in the elections.

Iran’s last large-scale elections came in February 2020 when the lowest voter turnout in the f40-year history of the country gave way to the current hardline parliament whose December law obliged Rouhani’s administration to boost uranium enrichment and restrict IAEA inspections.

“It is obviously much easier to negotiate a return to the nuclear deal with individuals who negotiated it in the first place than to work with a new cast of characters – or old ones from the Ahmadinejad days – who are much more antagonistic to the United States,” Slavin said in reference to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Vaez concurred saying: “It will be a risky gambit for Washington not to restore the JCPOA fully before its key proponents in Iran leave power.”

But he added it would be unlikely for the next Iranian president to undo what has been state policy as the supreme leader is always the ultimate decision-maker.

Meantime, however, Rouhani’s opponents are likely to mount more opposition to his dealings with international stakeholders.

On Monday, angry legislators said Iran’s agreement with the IAEA is “illegal” and called for the president to be handed over to the judiciary for legal punishment.

The heated confrontation even prompted the supreme leader to intervene, saying they must resolve their differences so a single voice would be communicated from Iran to the world.

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