Human rights advocates are calling on Canada to intervene and provide diplomatic aid to Cantopop star and Canadian citizen Denise Ho, who was arrested Wednesday alongside six journalists in Hong Kong.
Former federal justice minister and renowned human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler says Canada has a responsibility to take a stand as the leader of the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations earlier this year, and as one of the founding countries of the Media Freedom Coalition.
“What we’re seeing is a frontal assault not only on media freedom, not only on the safety and security of journalists, not only on the democracy movement — but on democracy itself in Hong Kong,” Cotler said.
“The Canadian government has specific responsibilities here, apart from the responsibilities of the community of democracies.”
Cotler met Ho at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in 2020.
“She inspired me and has been a courageous voice for the promotion and protection of human rights and democracy,” he said.
Advocate for LGBTQ rights, pro-democracy movement
Ho, like Cotler, is a Montrealer. She was born in Hong Kong, but raised in Brossard, on the South Shore. After high school, she attended CEGEP in Montreal before moving back to Hong Kong.
As a pop star and musician, she became one of the first local celebrities to come out as gay in 2012 at the Hong Kong Pride Parade, and has advocated for LGBTQ rights since, in addition to her involvement with the city’s pro-democracy movement for which she was also arrested in 2014.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted Wednesday that Canadian consular officials “are engaged and stand ready to provide assistance on the ground” and that Global Affairs is monitoring the situation.
“Canada will always stand up to support democracy and freedom of the press. We are deeply concerned by the arrests in Hong Kong of current and former board and staff members from Stand News, including Canadian citizen and activist Denise Ho,” Joly wrote.
At a 2019 protest in Hong Kong, Ho said growing up in Montreal helped her want to speak out for fundamental rights.
“For me, Canada is another home. So what I have learned there, I am applying it here in Hong Kong,” she said.
Ho’s arrest shocks supporters
The news of Ho’s arrest came as a shock to members of the group Hongkongers at McGill, a pro-democracy student group at the Montreal university.
A founding member, whose identity CBC News is protecting because she fears reprisals for speaking publicly in favour of activism in Hong Kong, said Ho had been an inspiration for the group’s creation.
“It was terrifying for our group,” the member said. “We’re all worried that one day it will be one of us or one of our friends in Hong Kong that will be arrested after they arrest all the big famous so-called activists. It shows China’s dedication to censorship and how it also affects Canadians.”
The student also said several of her group’s members identified as LGBTQ, which made Ho’s outspokenness all the more important to them.
“One thing that she really showed us is that we would never be free without democracy and if we want LGBTQ rights or other sorts of rights, we really should continue to fight for democracy in Hong Kong,” she said.
Ho was arrested after Hong Kong national security police raided the office of online pro-democracy media outlet Stand News. She is a former member of the news organization’s board of directors.
In a statement, police said the other Stand News journalists and senior staff members were arrested for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications.”
What will happen to press freedom in Hong Kong?
The arrests come as authorities crack down on dissent in the semi-autonomous region. Hong Kong police previously raided the offices of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, seizing boxes of materials and computer hard drives to assist in their investigation and freezing millions in assets that later forced the newspaper to cease operations.
Police charged the Apple Daily’s publisher Jimmy Lai, who is already jailed on other charges, with sedition on Tuesday.
“We are not targeting reporters, we are not targeting the media, we just targeted national security offences,” said Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of the Police National Security Department.
The member of Hongkongers at McGill said Stand News and Apple Daily were some of the only local independent news organizations left in Hong Kong.
She wondered what would happen to foreign reporters in the city — and press freedom there overall.
“This is the very reason we should and we have to continue doing what we’re doing, because if not there would be no one to fight for our rights,” she said.