Hong Kong detains then deports press freedom group representative

Media mogul Jimmy Lai (C) is escorted out of a Correctional Services Department vehicle and into the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, China, in February 2021. On Thursday, a representative from Reporters Without Borders was deported from Hong Kong as they arrived to monitor a hearing in Lai's high-profile trial. File Photo Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE
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April 11 (UPI) -- A representative for Reporters Without Borders has been denied entry to Hong Kong, according to the international freedom of information advocacy nonprofit, which lambasted the move as "a new decline in the already poor press freedom climate in the territory."

Taipei-based Advocacy Officer Aleksandra Bielakowska was deported from Hong Kong after being detained at the city's international airport for six hours. She was questioned during her detention and her belongings were searched thrice, it said.

She had landed in the territory as part of a RSF mission to meet journalists and monitor a hearing in the trial of media tycoon and British citizen Jimmy Lai, whose trial began late last year.

Rebecca Vincent, RSF's director of campaigns, said they were "appalled" by this treatment of one of their colleagues.

"We have never experienced such blatant efforts by authorities to evade scrutiny of court proceedings in any country, which further highlights the ludicrous nature of the case against Jimmy Lai, and the dire erosion of press freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong," Vincent said in a statement.

"We demand an immediate explanation from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and a guarantee that our representatives can return to the territory safely to monitor the remainder of Lai's trial, which cannot take place in darkness."

Lai, the 76-year-old former pro-democracy publisher of the now-shuttered independent newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested in August of 2020 on accusations of violating the then-newly imposed National Security Law, which issues stiff penalties for violating widely defined acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign agencies to undermine the national security of China.

Though the implementation of that law was met with wide-spread international condemnation and U.S. sanctions, Hong Kong last month passed Article 23, which builds upon the 2020 bill and raises penalties for 39 offenses broken down into a series of categories, including treason, insurrection, acts of sedition and others.

Lai is the most prominent figure to so far be charged under the National Security Law.

He has pleaded not guilty to three charges accusing him of colluding with foreign powers to take actions against China. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Prosecutors specifically allege that he used Hong Kong's mass pro-democracy protests that brought the territory to a standstill in 2019 as an opportunity to urge foreign nations, specifically the United States, to impose sanctions against China.

Both the United States and Britain have condemned the charges and have called for Lai's immediate release.

British-based Hong Kong Watch condemned the deportation on Wednesday, accusing Hong Kong authorities of becoming "increasingly brazen" in their show of force against journalist and human rights advocates.

"With actions like this, it appears that the Hong Kong authorities feel the need to follow Beijing's lead and ensure they hit rock-bottom in global rankings for press freedom," Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, said in a statement.

Hong Kong was once heralded for its reputation of upholding press freedom, but has taken a repetitional beating since 2020.

In that time, seven independent media outlets, including Apple Daily, have shuttered over risks of operating in the territory, according to RSF.

Hong Kong sits in 140th place out of of 180 countries in the RSF's press freedom index, behind Cameroon and Colombia and just ahead of Somalia and Brunei. Two decades ago, it sat in 18th place.