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Chinese and Hong Kong flags at the waterfront during a foggy day in Hong Kong, on March 6.Tyrone Siu/Reuters

As Hong Kong prepares to enact tough new national security legislation next month, multiple media organizations have warned the law could have a chilling effect, further limiting press freedom in the Chinese territory.

At least one outlet is not waiting to see how the legislation, Article 23, pans out: U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia is reportedly set to withdraw from Hong Kong by the end of March, closing its last bureau in China.

RFA, which describes its mission as “bringing free press to closed societies,” has long been a target of Chinese state media. Beijing-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong recently accused it of being “anti-China,” and government officials have criticized it for interviewing overseas dissidents.

Rohit Mahajan, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for RFA, would not comment on the Hong Kong bureau’s closure but said that, “like every news organization operating in Hong Kong, RFA is looking closely at how Article 23 potentially affects our reporters and operations.”

The broadcaster had already shrunk its footprint in Hong Kong after the introduction of an earlier national security law in 2020. According to LinkedIn and reports in local media, there are about half a dozen RFA employees in Hong Kong, most of whom are expected to relocate to Taipei or Washington.

The 2020 national security law has had a devastating effect on media in Hong Kong, with multiple publications forced to close, including popular pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily and online outlet Stand News. Hundreds of journalists have left the city, some setting up publications to cover Hong Kong news in exile.

Since 2019, Hong Kong has fallen 67 places on an annual press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which describes the city as a former “bastion of press freedom” in Asia that “has seen an unprecedented setback” in recent years.

Article 23 could exacerbate this situation, with the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) warning it “will have profound and far-reaching implications” and could “further stifle speech and press freedom” in the city.

Many journalists have expressed concern that articles critical of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments could be regarded as seditious for inciting “hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction” under the new law. Lawmakers have already warned that owning old copies of Apple Daily could soon become illegal unless someone has a “reasonable excuse” for doing so.

Article 23 also includes the offence of “colluding with an external force,” which in most cases can add three years to a prison sentence. “External force” is defined broadly, including both foreign governments and political parties and “any other organization in an external place that pursues political ends.”

RFA is funded by the United States Agency for Global Media, an independent agency of the U.S. government that also supports Voice of America and the Open Technology Fund and has an annual budget of almost US$1-billion.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, HKJA chairman Ronson Chan said RFA’s decision was not surprising.

“Overseas media outlets are very concerned about the safety of their reporters, so they will be thinking about their continued presence in the city,” he told the paper. “The most important thing is whether the government can give confidence to these media organizations … give these outlets some form of protection or guarantee.”

While several major outlets, including CNN, Bloomberg and the Financial Times maintain large Hong Kong bureaus, both The New York Times and The Washington Post have relocated their Asia operations to South Korea, while many individual reporters have moved to Singapore or Taiwan.

The Wall Street Journal recently downsized its Hong Kong bureau, and in an announcement Thursday said incoming Asia editor Deborah Ball would be based in Singapore.

Unlike in mainland China, foreign reporters in Hong Kong are not required to apply for journalist visas, which Beijing has long used to limit the number of international media in China and punish reporters it does not like. In recent years, however, applying for and renewing work visas in Hong Kong has become far more difficult, with immigration officials demanding to see years’ worth of bylines and asking questions about coverage.

At least one reporter for a Western outlet was recently denied a visa after this process, two sources with knowledge of the situation told The Globe and Mail, which is not identifying them as they were not authorized to discuss such matters publicly.

Hong Kong officials have dismissed concerns about Article 23, pointing to a constitutional requirement to introduce similar laws in other countries. Speaking in parliament Thursday, security chief Chris Tang said Article 23 “does not target the media.”

James Griffiths is a member of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and previously sat on the organization’s press freedom committee.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described RFA’s relationship with the United States Agency for Global Media. RFA is a private corporation that receives funding through USAGM. This version has been updated.

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