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Can Journalism Survive in Hong Kong?

FILE - Journalists take pictures and video over water-filled barriers after an opening ceremony for China's Office for Safeguarding National Security, in Hong Kong, July 8, 2020.
FILE - Journalists take pictures and video over water-filled barriers after an opening ceremony for China's Office for Safeguarding National Security, in Hong Kong, July 8, 2020.

In a newsroom, editors tell reporters to not touch politically sensitive stories. Reporters are told to put stories on hold until China’s foreign ministry comes out with its statement. Terminology that the government might frown upon is banned from news copy.

Such is the state of journalism, not just in mainland China, but increasingly in Hong Kong, after a national security law was adopted by Beijing for the former British colony in 2020, according to local journalists.

“Sometimes we don’t feel like we’re journalists. We’re simply a part of the propaganda machine. We feel all the things we learned from journalism school are wasted because it’s not applicable anymore. The morale is really low,” said one local journalist who did not want to be named, to avoid retribution.

Once a model of press freedom in Asia, Hong Kong’s journalism scene has deteriorated since Beijing enacted the national security law, outlawing secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, according to journalists and surveys. They also indicate that self-censorship is becoming common, opposition voices are becoming rare, and caution reigns.

Prior to passage of the law in 2020, journalists could cover news largely as they liked, as if they were in a democratic country.

Now, many fear it will become even more difficult to be a journalist in the city if a proposed new security law - known as Article 23 - is adopted, without safeguards, especially a public interest defense clause, for journalists.

Article 23 would add treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets and espionage, sabotage endangering national security, and external interference as offenses, and would expand the scope and penalties for existing crimes, including sedition.

Ronson Chan, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association - the city’s oldest and largest association for local journalists - said many journalists are worried. He said since the Beijing-imposed national security law was passed, journalists constantly must consider the potential dangers of “crossing the redline,” especially because the government has not clarified what that line is.

“Every day, every moment, you have to consider when you speak anything about the government in some livestream program, what will happen to you,” said Chan, who is also the multimedia manager for local news website Channel C.

As of the end of last year, 156 people, including more than a dozen senior employees at newspapers including editors and editorial writers, have been arrested for security law or sedition offenses, although most are out on bail, according to online magazine, which tracks the arrests, charges and convictions. Two well-known news outlets - Apple Daily and Stand News - closed in 2021 following raids, arrests of senior employees, and freezing of their assets. Another - Citizen News - voluntarily closed soon after, to ensure the safety of its staff.

Some journalists have reported experiencing digital or physical surveillance, or both.

More recently, a reporter who has long covered China’s defense beat for Hong Kong’s English language newspaper, The South China Morning Post, became unreachable after a work trip to Beijing. Although her company later said her family confirmed that she was safe and needed to deal with a private matter, her disappearance has raised concerns that she might have been detained. The reporter, Minnie Chan, has not filed any stories since covering a defense forum in China in late October of last year.

Many journalists have also either left Hong Kong or the profession, Chan said. The number of Hong Kong Journalists Association journalist members dropped from 800 in 2019 to just 300.

While foreign media journalists, especially expatriates, have the protection of a foreign passport and backing from major world media organizations, including CNN and BBC, which have bureaus here, they risk losing their visa and right to continue reporting in Hong Kong if the authorities find problems with their reporting, said the Lee Williamson, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

An FCC survey on press freedom last year found 65% of responding journalists said they had engaged in self-censorship either in the content of their reporting or by avoiding certain subjects, and 27% said they had self-censored considerably.

“I can’t speak of the motivations, but these numbers do speak to the anecdotal evidence that we do see every day in Hong Kong - journalists who are holding back because they want to make sure they are here tomorrow to continue telling the story of Hong Kong and mainland China,” Williamson said.

The survey also found 88% of the respondents said sources in Hong Kong had become less willing to be quoted or to speak to reporters about sensitive topics.

Perhaps affected on a greater level are local journalists, who may not have a foreign passport, whose long-term home is Hong Kong and who have seen local media organizations closed and their peers arrested.

Nonetheless, they are finding ways to continue their work.

“After the national security law was adopted, senior managers give you warm reminders about how our stories should be written. Certain terms cannot be used. For example, we could not use the words ‘record low turnout’ to describe the recent district council elections and could only say ‘turnout rate was as expected,’” said the journalist who requested anonymity. “They even put out a list saying who you cannot interview - such as pro-democracy activists.”

“No one wants to be the next Stand News, Citizen News or Apple Daily,” she said, referring to the three news outlets that have shut down.

Self-censorship is not only for self-protection, but to protect sources and colleagues as well, she said.

“It’s always a struggle. You got a good [quote] and it’s anti-government. You, your editor, your newsroom would have to make a decision: Do you want to put that person at risk? I don’t think so. Our job is to report the truth but at the same time, you cannot do any harm to anyone,” she said. “When colleagues write sensitive sentences, we censor them too. You don’t want them to get in trouble. It’s a struggle. You’re practicing self-censorship but you’re saving somebody.”

The result is that various media’s reports are similar, with the same kind of opinion and voices, she said.

There’s still space to scrutinize government policies and actions, but the journalist who requested anonymity said that was only for politically nonsensitive issues.

“It’s OK to quote someone saying firework displays are a waste of money since even a lawmaker said it … [but] all reporting on Article 23 has been very positive,” she said.

She said she plans to continue as a journalist despite the difficulties, pointing to the need for nonpolitical stories, and the appeal of “doing social impact stories such as those about NGOs working to help others,” which, she said were rewarding to do because readers become more interested in the NGOs after reading the stories.

“Society is not just about politics,” she said.

On the bright side, no more journalists have been arrested after the Apple Daily and Stand News arrests, Chan said.

He and Williamson agreed that what is encouraging is that there are still passionate journalists trying to report on issues in Hong Kong in the current environment.

“What I do believe in is the dedication and the talent of the journalists who are in Hong Kong, both those who were born here and those who have moved here, to continue to do their job in the face of hardship,” Williamson said.