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SPJ urges Hong Kong government to back away from threats to press freedom


SPJ News Release - Friday, December 20, 2002

Robert Leger, SPJ National President, 417/836-1113 or 417/425-4190 cell or rleger@spj.org in United States.
Dan Kubiske, co-chair, SPJ International Journalism Committee, 2849-6778 office or 9182-4416 cell (in Hong Kong) or Dan@Kubiske.org.

INDIANAPOLIS - Hong Kong has long stood as an example of an Asian city that respects and protects a free press. In the five years since the return to Chinese sovereignty, the Hong Kong government has refused to bow to internal and external pressures to regulate or silence critical media coverage.

It is because of this history that the Society of Professional Journalists of the United States is concerned by the recommendations of the Hong Kong government regarding national security legislation related to Article 23 of Hong Kong’s constitutional document, the Basic Law.

We are aware that Article 23 obliges the Hong Kong government to enact legislation, on its own, regarding national security, including sedition, secession, and theft of state secrets. We realize that governments claim to themselves the power to limit information deemed vital to national security. We are further aware that in democracies national security issues are often in conflict with the inherent right of a free and independent news media.

We believe it is through a free and unfettered flow of information, including a free media, that a nation finds it best security. When a reporter fears a story or an interview may run afoul of national security laws, he or she may think twice about pursuing it. Once reporters begin to self-censor their work out of fear of possible retribution, the free flow of information stagnates and corruption and public distrust creeps in.

Freedom of speech and press are threatened in the proposals as presented by the Hong Kong government. In forming our opinion we are guided by comments from working local and international journalists in Hong Kong and legal and academic experts in Hong Kong. We have taken particular note of the comments from the Hong Kong Journalist Association and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. SPJ stands with these organizations in opposing the wide-ranging proposals made by the government.

We share a concern with these professional organizations and other civil rights groups about the vagueness in the proposals. The lack of specificity leaves too many serious civil rights questions unanswered and could leave journalists vulnerable to intimidation and abuse by the government.

We note the following:
The proposals offer no public interest or prior publication defense should a reporter pursue a story the government might consider in violation of Article 23 related legislation.
The vague language related to “unauthorized disclosure” of government documents leaves too much arbitrary power in the hands of the government to decide what is and isn’t an offense under Article 23.
The inclusion of crimes of sedition and secession excessive and draconian.
Allowing the police extraordinary powers of search and seizure without a judicial warrant strikes us as a power that can be too easily abused.

We understand that since the presentation of the consultation paper in September government officials have made oral assurances to media organizations and that some of the concerns raised. We would be pleased to see the government react in a positive nature to these comments. However, at this point we can only react to what is presented in the consultation paper itself.

The next logical step would be for the government to release the exact wording of the proposed legislation. The government should then provide for a serious consultation period to allow the Hong Kong public, media, business community, and the international community to digest and gain a clear understanding of the proposals before the Legislative Council debates the issues. Such a step would reinforce the administration’s assertions that it honors the principles of open and transparent governance.

Hong Kong is an example for journalists in China who want to enjoy the freedom of reporting without having to look over their shoulders. The freedoms and rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents and journalists lure news organizations and multi-national corporations to set up offices in that city. The Hong Kong government would be doing itself and its people a disservice if it does not provide for further discussion on this legislation once the exact wording is presented.

As journalists we believe in having as few laws affecting the media as possible. We understand there already exist laws in Hong Kong covering many of the issues mentioned in Article 23. It makes sense to us for the government to approach this issue with the lightest possible touch.

The Society of Professional Journalists is America’s largest and most broadly based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

Copies of the Hong Kong Journalist Association reaction to Article 23 can be seen at:

Copies of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club statement on Article 23 can be seen at:

Copies of the Article 23 consultation paper can be downloaded at:

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