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The UK government is failing to acknowledge a British citizen unfairly imprisoned in Hong Kong amid a wider targeting of journalists and pro-democracy campaigners in the city state, said the authors of a new report on issues of freedom in Hong Kong.
On Monday, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong (APPG) met at Portcullis House, London, to discuss their new report, Inquiry into Media Freedom in Hong Kong: The case of Jimmy Lai and and Apple Daily, which offers a sobering look into the state of media freedoms in the once vibrant city. Index contributed to the report.
The session was headed by Baroness Bennett of Manor Caste, the joint chair of the APPG. Other speakers included Lai’s international lawyer, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, Baroness Helena Kennedy and Sebastian Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son.
One of the aims of the report is to provoke a response from the British government regarding Lai. A pro-democracy figure, media tycoon and British citizen, he is in a Hong Kong prison after sentencing for unauthorised assembly and fraud charges. In addition to these charges are more serious ones of violating Hong Kong’s national security law, which was passed in 2020. Six of his colleagues at Apple Daily, the newspaper founded by Lai, are also in jail charged under the national security laws.
Kennedy believes the case of Jimmy Lai should be treated as a political priority by the UK government not only because Lai is a British citizen, but also because of the the joint declaration that gives the UK a place in trying to guarantee the rights of people in Hong Kong.
She added: “It is the illegitimate use of law against a citizen by the government, and against the protection of media freedom and expression in Hong Kong.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool, a vice chair of the APPG, echoed Kennedy’s called for Magnitsky-style sanctions against allies of the Hong Kong authorities in the UK as further action is needed. “We have to go beyond sanctions, to freezing the assets and redeploying the resources of those who have been able to use London as a place for their activities,” he said.
Gallagher said the Hong Kong authorities have weaponised their laws to target pro-democracy campaigners and journalists in new ways. Gallagher, who represents Jimmy Lai, as well as Maria Ressa from the Philippines who was charged with tax evasion, says that this is a new tactic – trying to discredit them by painting them as bad people rather than using the more traditional tactic of defamation. “It’s straight from the dictators’ playbook,” she said.
Kennedy echoed this by stating fraud and tax affair charges are common tactics used against journalists in Hong Kong before more serious charges are later served. They added that as a result of supporting Lai they’ve received a series of threats and intimidation from state actors.
Sebastian Lai said he is also a target for the Chinese authorities. He acknowledged international support regarding his father’s cause but expressed disappointment in the UK government’s attitude. He said: “The language the UK government has used has been nowhere close to what America has used for not only a British citizen, but my father.”
However, he did acknowledge thanks for Anne Marie Trevelyan, MP and Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, for meeting him.
Fiona O’ Brien, the UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said it needed to be waved in the face of those in power, “along with journalists writing stories, lawyers pursuing legal routes and advocates in society. We need to continue to shine a light.”
The report can be found here.
The central theme of the Spring 2023 issue of Index is India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
After monitoring Modi’s rule since he was elected in 2014, Index decided to look deeper into the state of free expression inside the world’s largest democracy.
Index spoke to a number of journalists and authors from, or who live in, India; and discovered that on every marker of what a democracy should be, Modi’s India fails. The world is largely silent when it comes to Narendra Modi. Let’s change that.
Can India survive more Modi?, by Jemimah Seinfeld: Nine years into his leadership the world has remained silent on Modi's failed democracy. It's time to turn up the temperature before it's too late.
The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest news from the free speech frontlines. Big impact elections, poignant words from the daughter of a jailed Tunisian opposition politician, and the potential US banning of Tik Tok.
Cultural amnesia in Cairo, by Nick Hilden: Artists are under attack in the Egyptian capital where signs of revolution are scrubbed from the street.
‘Crimea has turned into a concentration camp’, by Nariman Dzhelal: Exclusive essay from the leader of the Crimean Tatars, introduced by Ukranian author Andrey Kurkov.
Fighting information termination, by Jo-Ann Mort: How the USA's abortion information wars are being fought online.
A race to the bottom, by Simeon Tegel: Corruption is corroding the once-democratic Peru as people take to the streets.
When comics came out, by Sara Century: The landscape of expression that gave way to a new era of queer comics, and why the censors are still fighting back.
In Iran women’s bodies are the battleground, by Kamin Mohammadi: The recent protests, growing up in the Shah's Iran where women were told to de-robe, and the terrible u-turn after.
Face to face with Iran’s authorities, by Ramita Navai: The award-winning war correspondent tells Index's Mark Frary about the time she was detained in Tehran, what the current protests mean and her Homeland cameo.
Scope for truth, by Kaya Genç: The Turkish novelist visits a media organisation built on dissenting voices, just weeks before devastating earthquakes hit his homeland.
Ukraine’s media battleground, by Emily Couch: Two powerful examples of how fraught reporting on this country under siege has become.
Storytime is dragged into the guns row, by Francis Clarke: Relaxed gun laws and the rise of LGBTQ+ sentiment is silencing minority communities in the USA.
Those we must not leave behind, by Martin Bright: As the UK government has failed in its task to rescue Afghans, Index's editor at large speaks to members of a new Index network aiming to help those whose lives are in imminent danger.
Modi’s singular vision for India, by Salil Tripathi: India used to be a country for everyone. Now it's only for Hindus - and uncritical ones at that.
Blessed are the persecuted, by Hanan Zaffar: As Christians face an increasing number of attacks in India, the journalist speaks to people who have been targeted.
India’s Great Firewall, by Aishwarya Jagani: The vision of a 'digital India' has simply been a way for the authoritarian government to cement its control.
Stomping on India’s rights, by Marnie Duke: The members of the RSS are synonymous with Modi. Who are they, and why are they so controversial?
Bollywood’s Code Orange, by Debasish Roy Chowdhury: The Bollywood movie powerhouse has gone from being celebrated to being used as a tool for propaganda.
Bulldozing freedom, by Bilal Ahmad Pandow: Narendra Modi's rule in Jammu and Kashmir has seen buildings dismantled in line with people's broader rights.
Let’s talk about sex, by Mehk Chakraborty: In a country where sexual violence is abundant and sex education is taboo, the journalist explores the politics of pleasure in India.
Uncle is watching, by Anindita Ghose: The journalist and author shines a spotlight on the vigilantes in India who try to control women.
Keep calm and let Confucius Institutes carry on, by Kerry Brown: Banning Confucius Institutes will do nothing to stop Chinese soft power. It'll just cripple our ability to understand the country.
A papal precaution, by Robin Vose: Censorship on campus and taking lessons from the Catholic Church's doomed index of banned works.
The democratic federation stands strong, by Ruth Anderson: Putin's assault on freedoms continues but so too does the bravery of those fighting him.
Left behind and with no voice, by Lijia Zhang and Jemimah Steinfeld: China's children are told to keep quiet. The culture of silence goes right the way up.
Zimbabwe’s nervous condition, by Tsitsi Dangarembga: The Zimbabwean filmmaker and author tells Index's Katie Dancey-Downes about her home country's upcoming election, being arrested for a simple protest and her most liberating writing experience yet.
Statues within a plinth of their life, by Marc Nash: Can you imagine a world without statues? And what might fill those empty plinths? The London-based novelist talks to Index's Francis Clarke about his new short story, which creates exactly that.
Crimea’s feared dawn chorus, by Martin Bright: A new play takes audiences inside the homes and families of Crimean Tatars as they are rounded up.
From hijacker to media mogul, Soe Myint: The activist and journalist on keeping hope alive in Myanmar.
Students should be encouraged to challenge ideas and question the world around them. Higher education is meant to teach us how to think freely, and for ourselves. Unsettling new data published by the Academic Freedom Index proves that this freedom is under threat. The report finds that academic freedom is in decline for over 50 percent of the world’s population and that many people on campuses worldwide have significantly less freedom today than they did ten years ago. In the past decade, academic freedom has improved in only a handful of countries, affecting just 0.7% of the world’s population. The most populous of these countries is Uzbekistan, a closed autocracy in which universities and scholars still face severe limitations, such as the government’s control over contacts between universities or scholars and foreign entities.
AFI’s data signals a decline across all regions and all region types. Our own ranking, the recently published Index Index, a project that uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, shows just how this plays out on a country-by-country basis. Some obvious patterns can be drawn. Dwindling academic freedom clearly correlates to the deterioration of democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Russia and Belarus. Political developments, including military coups in countries such as Myanmar and Afghanistan, have coincided with severe declines in academic freedom. In December 2022, the latter saw a ban by the Taliban on women and girls attending universities, a ruling that illustrates how academic freedom extends beyond what is taught on campuses and delineates one’s freedom to simply exist within academic spaces.
That said, the data shows that declines in academic freedom worldwide have occurred in different political settings and do not always follow the same pattern. Liberal democracies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom are among the countries under which freedom is proven to be under threat. The AFI attributes this to ‘differences between individual and institutional dimensions of academic freedom’. This demarcates the difference between the freedom of an individual to teach, research and communicate freely and an institution’s autonomy and freedom to operate without government regulation. The AFI report gives a number of examples showing how disaggregation has occurred.
China, for instance, has witnessed a decrease in institutional academic freedom since 2010, when the State Council launched a ten-year strategy for education reform. Chinese universities have since remained in a subordinate position to the party-state, with universities that maintain leadership and management systems controlled by the university’s party committee. The party sets the boundaries of permissible research, exchange, and academics’ public speech. This system facilitated a serious decline in the freedoms enjoyed by academics under President Xi Jinping who has consolidated and centralised power, reestablished the party’s control over information, education and media, and made censorship in China a fact of life. Moreover, the draconian National Security Law enacted in Beijing in 2020 has exacerbated pressure on academic freedom.
The United States, however, presents an altogether different picture. Despite being lauded as a bastion of free expression, the US has seen a visible decline in academic freedom since 2021. This is because educational matters in the USA are largely regulated by individual states, which have increasingly used their authority to interfere in academic affairs. Several Republican-led states have adopted bills that ban the teaching of concepts related to “critical race theory” in universities. Conservative groups have lobbied state legislatures in attempts to withdraw funding from subjects such as gender, minority studies, and environmental science. Some institutions have introduced self-censoring measures following abortion bans to avoid persecution by state governments. In September 2022, Idaho’s flagship university curtailed individual academic freedom by blocking staff from discussing abortion or emergency contraception on campus.
Mexico’s government, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has weakened institutional autonomy by regularly appointing university directors, often resulting in student protests. Attacks on (predominantly female) students, protests against these harassments, and a drug war fought on university campuses has also fuelled a decline in campus integrity, university safety and academic freedom.
The underwhelming glimpse of hope that emerges from this year's findings (compared with 2022) is that the number of countries with improvements in academic freedom grew from two to five. Overall, the data signals a shift toward a less free world, in a worse state than it was 10 years ago. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
A few months ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, in October 2021, activists gathered at multiple locations in Athens to protest China’s hosting of the Games. In an alarming turn of events, Greek police arrested several of the activists. Some were arrested for unfurling banners, others for simply handing out fliers or, even just attending the “No Beijing 2022” events. Some were released without charge, others were acquitted after trial. For three activists, their trials were postponed until later in 2023.
Before travelling to Greece, the activists - who were mostly Hong Kongers and Tibetans from Switzerland, the USA and Canada - tried to engage with International Olympics Committee (IOC) officials. They explained that hosting the Olympics in an authoritarian country that commits genocide was a violation of the Olympic Charter, which ensures that the games promote “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. However, their arguments fell on deaf ears. Frances Hui, the director of “We The HongKongers”, told Index that IOC officials dismissed them, saying “you’re young, this is a complicated issue.”
Another activist, Zumretay Arkin, director of the World Uyghur Congress Women’s Committee, told Index that protesting at the Olympic flame lighting ceremony “was an opportunity for us to counter Beijing in Greece.”
While the activists knew there are always risks involved in protesting, they were not particularly worried. The most common tactic used to silence dissidents abroad – threatening the safety of loved ones – could not work as most activists involved had no direct family left in their homelands. Tsela Zoksang, a Students for Free Tibet member, told Index: “I have the privilege to raise my voice up against the CCP, unlike many communities who remain under the brutal rule of the CCP, and so I think I have a duty to amplify their voices and their stories.” Greece’s position as a member of the EU also reassured the protesters. According to Pema Doma, one of the activists and Executive Director at Students for a Free Tibet, they believed it “very unlikely that a country of the EU would act on orders of the Chinese government”. These beliefs were unfortunately misplaced.
On 18 October, activists congregated outside the flame lighting ceremony. The activists planned to stand outside the security cordon and hand out flyers to journalists as they entered the Temple of Hera.
The activists were first approached by a Greek police officer curious about their activity but were left undisturbed. This soon changed. According to four activists that Index spoke to, the Greek officer spoke to an individual who identified themself as and was dressed in the uniform of, a member from the Chinese Embassy. The Greek officer insisted that “They’re just sitting there, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to sit there”. According to the activists’ retelling, this was met with the firm instruction to “make them leave. Tell them they can’t stay here”. They were moved from the entrance car park to a public pavement.
The activists had spotted other plain-clothed Asian men earlier taking photos of them. These same men approached the Greek police, and after a short discussion the activists were detained by Greek police officers. They were arrested without being informed of their rights and taken in unmarked cars to Pyrgos Police Station.
The Greek police possess broad powers to arrest activists for unsanctioned actions. Avgoustinos Zenakos, an investigative journalist from the Manifold Files, told Index: “The Greek police interpret these laws in their favour…This means whether it is abused or used in an honest way depends on the culture of the police rather than the letter of the individual law.” During an official visit to Greece, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported that they received “credible information involving non-nationals in pre-trial detention who were detained exclusively on the basis of police testimony, including when there was other evidence that did not support the guilt of the persons involved.”
The protesters believe that the decision to arrest them was not made by the police alone. Doma told Index: “We knew right from the beginning it was the Chinese Embassy staff directing the Greek police quite directly, quite closely, you know, telling them exactly what to tell us”.
The next day, another group of activists were detained after holding a press conference to discuss the CCP’s human rights abuses to members of the media. The event was monitored by unknown individuals, some of whom attempted to stare down and harass the activists. When some of the activists confronted the individuals and asked them where they were from they laughed before replying, “We’re from China”. Tsering Gonpa, a Tibetan Youth Association of Europe activist, and Tenzin Yangzom, Grassroots Director at Students for a Free Tibet, climbed into a taxi together after the event and immediately heard sirens. Their passports were confiscated and they were escorted to the Athens police station.
“We were extremely shocked by the CCP’s influence and leverage in democratic Greece. We knew the situation was bad, but we certainly didn’t expect this level of transnational repression,” Yangzom told Index.
According to Zenakos, to find criticism of Greece’s relationship with China, including Chinese state ownership of key Greek assets and Greece’s involvement in key initiatives such as the 16+1 grouping of countries and China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy, “you would have to dig deep.” These all raise questions as to whether increasing economic entanglement is leading Greece to become overprotective of its relationship with China. For instance, in 2016 Athens pushed for an EU statement on the South China Sea to be amended to remove criticism of Beijing and a year later it vetoed an EU statement at the UN Human Rights Council condemning human rights abuses in China. According to media reporting, this was the first time the EU didn’t make a statement of this nature at the council.
Mistreatment in the police stations
On 17 October 2021, Tesla Zoksang and Joey Siu, and one other anonymous activist, planned to install a banner onto the outer-walls of the Acropolis. Within about two minutes of ascending, a security guard approached and cut down the banner. The activists remained perched on the scaffolding watching police cars arrive before they were escorted down. Greek barrister Alexis Anagnostakis, who represented the activists, told Index that “the activists’ removal from the protest site, their arrest, and their remand in police custody was a disproportionate interference with their rights for freedom of expression and assembly, as is their criminal prosecution.” Anagnostakis was also surprised by the escalation “since similar protests on the Acropolis reportedly have never before been prosecuted.”
According to Tsela Zoksang, at the police station during an interrogation, one activist who wished to remain anonymous, was told by Greek officials that a representative from the US embassy was there to see them. However, the representative later allegedly admitted to being from an unspecified Greek agency. With assistance from the non-profit Vouliwatch, Index submitted an FOI request to the Greek police, attempting to verify these claims but were denied the disclosure on the basis that Index does not have “specific legitimate interest”. Index has lodged an appeal.
Other detained activists were not informed of their rights or what crime they were alleged to have committed. When the activists detained outside of the press conference asked why they were being detained an officer told them “to be completely honest with you, I don’t know why we’re taking you with us but I got orders from the higher ups”.
They were asked to sign documents without an English translation. After refusing, Zoksang reported that the officers “began getting very angry and frustrated. They were saying, ‘You are disobeying me, you are disobeying the law.’ I said, ‘No, but I can’t sign something if I don’t know what it says’”. They were told they would be punished for not signing documents and giving their fingerprints but at the time of going to press, nothing has yet come of this. The activists were also asked a series of seemingly irrelevant questions such as their parents' names. Given the potential involvement or presence of CCP-affiliated actors in their detention, they feared this information would be shared with the Chinese authorities, potentially imperilling their ability to travel and the safety of any family members in CCP-jurisdiction.
Every Tibetan is an activist
Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan activist, explained to Index: “Every Tibetan that was born after 1959 is born an activist ... because your existence is by default political in nature when you are born stateless.”
While the Games still went ahead, the campaign nonetheless left its mark. As Lhamo told Index, “There was a moment of time, in the world, in the busy world that we are in, when people stopped for a moment to ask, ‘what’s happening? What’s happening within Tibet?'”
The diplomatic boycotts were also found to have had a major impact on viewership. Yangzom told Index that the oppression of the activists was “vindication that the work that we’re doing is making an impact and we must be doing something right – so we mustn't give up and keep raising our voices on behalf of Tibetans inside Tibet and all those oppressed.”
All charges against the Acropolis actors were dropped on 17 November 2022. Michael Polak, their British ‘Justice Abroad’ barrister, stated “It is hoped that the acquittals today will send a strong message that legitimate peaceful protest and assembly, of the type banned totally in China and Hong Kong, will be allowed even when it hurts the fragile sensibilities of the Beijing and Hong Kong regimes.”
Yet, the charges against others for attempting to “pollute, damage and distort” the historical monument of Olympia, punishable by up to five years in prison, still stand. The original trial against Lhamo, Jason Leith and Fern MacDougal was delayed before being again pushed back to November 2023. MacDougal told Index she worries “the delay in trial has the effect of both avoiding public discussion of the human rights violations that we took action based on and of obscuring the meaning of our action.”
Lhamo also noted that “it is another year of waiting, and having a pending court case has its own consequences which seem to unfold in various ways for us.” She elaborated to Index that she is “lucky” to have continued support from the lawyers and organisations, but the charge is a significant barrier for them to engage in more direct actions and affects their ability to travel. Yet she emphasised: “Don’t feel anxious for us [about the court case] ... Let’s channel that energy of solidarity and support to the folks we are actually working for, those inside Tibet.”