The national security charges levied against Hong Kong newspaper owner Jimmy Lai, along with the detention of Bloomberg News employee Haze Fan on the grounds of national security, represent a twin set of blows against press freedom in both mainland China and Hong Kong, PEN America said today.

“Today’s developments represent a dark day for media freedom in both mainland China and in Hong Kong, and show how the Communist Party of China has decided to treat any media that it does not directly control as a potential or actual enemy of the state,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America. “This attitude is completely incompatible with the freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”

“Jimmy Lai is being treated as an enemy of the state for the apparent ‘crime’ of speaking his mind about the city he loves,” Lopez continued. “And while Chinese authorities have offered no information to justify their detention of Haze Fan, we can only evaluate their actions against the backdrop of increasing hostility to foreign news outlets within the country, in which honest reporting is treated as a threat. The fact that both mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have pursued these ‘national security’ charges against media figures in the same week is also a poignant demonstration of the extent to which Beijing has acted in recent months to dissolve the one-country, two-systems framework in Hong Kong that it has claimed to respect. We urge authorities to drop these draconian new charges against Jimmy Lai, and to either immediately demonstrate their case against Haze Fan or release her and allow her to go back to her work.”

On Friday, Hong Kong police said media mogul Jimmy Lai would face the charge of collusion with a foreign country, an offense under the city’s new National Security Law, which was imposed by Beijing in June. Under the law, Lai will face charges of potential life imprisonment. According to one report, the charge is linked to a series of media interviews Lai gave in which he called for sanctions against Hong Kong as a means of pressuring authorities to reverse the imposition of the law.

Lai is one of the most visible pro-democracy figures in the city, and the founder of the popular Apple Daily newspaper. He was previously detained on national security charges in August, and the offices of his media company, Next Digital, was raided. Salil Tripathi, the chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, declared Lai’s detention in August “outrageous,” concluding that it was “profoundly tragic seeing civil liberties in Hong Kong being snuffed out with such ease.” Lai is already facing charges of fraud after allegedly violating the terms of the lease for his company’s building. On December 3, Lai was denied bail, and is currently detained.

Also on Friday, Bloomberg News announced that a member of its news staff in China, Haze Fan, was detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of “engaging in criminal activities that endanger national security.” Fan was last in contact with one of her editors on Monday, and was seen later that day being escorted from her apartment by security officials. Authorities have offered no clarification as to why she is under suspicion.

Fan has worked with Bloomberg for the past three years. Under Chinese law, Chinese nationals are not allowed to be reporters for foreign outlets, and are only able to work as news assistants.  

PEN America has documented the shrinking space for press freedom in both mainland China and Hong Kong, including through its 2016 report Darkened Screen: Constraints on Foreign Journalists in China, and the 2015 report Threatened Harbor: Encroachments on Press Freedom in Hong Kong. Since then, Chinese mainland authorities have expelled foreign journalists, detained independent reporters covering the coronavirus, and shut down independent artistic spaces. In Hong Kong, authorities have unrolled a consistent drumbeat of arrests and prosecutions in the wake of the National Security Law, which has been uniformly criticized by human rights organizations.