Politics, sanctions, protests. The list of issues that Hong Kong’s journalists now think twice about covering is growing.
In the two years since Hong Kong enacted its national security law, authorities have detained over 180 people including journalists, activists and lawmakers, — data from news and analysis site China File shows.
And at least five news outlets have been shuttered. Some like Apple Daily and Stand News closed after authorities arrested staff or executives under national security or sedition laws. Others like the investigative outlet FactWire, which announced its closure Friday, cited only a “great change” in the reporting environment.
In the past year, Hong Kong dropped from 80 to 148 on the press freedom index, where No.1 is considered the most free. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which curates the list, says the security law triggered an “unprecedented setback.”
As one journalist working for a European outlet told VOA, “For the media, it’s simply not the city that it once was.”
In a further indication of the repressive environment, that journalist and another who spoke with VOA agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity— for fear of being targeted under the law.
The second journalist, who has worked for international media in Hong Kong for several years, told VOA she feels more pressure today than ever before.
“The working environment in Hong Kong is getting more stressful because of the red lines and the external pressure put on journalists, who often become targets of propaganda,” she told VOA.
The journalist said that pressure comes from Chinese media and officials.
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau told VOA that claims of a decline in press freedom could not be “further from the truth.”
The statement, attributed to a representative, said freedom of speech and of the press are protected under law, but “[they] are not absolute and can be restricted for reasons, including protection of national security.”
The representative said any legal action is based on evidence and has “nothing to do with [a person’s] political stance, background or occupation.”
Aside from concerns of legal action, reporters who cover politically sensitive news sometimes find themselves targeted by pro-Beijing media or online.
In these cases, the female journalist said, a reporter’s work can be misrepresented, or they are subjected to personal attacks online.
“Pro-Beijing media examine the pieces and speeches of 'problematic' journalists,” the female journalist said, adding that often they distort the meaning of the original article.
“Sometimes those reports published by mouthpieces were picked up by pro-Beijing opinion leaders, lawmakers or even officials, warning of consequences.”
“This kind of orchestrated intimidation also affects our way of reporting. I think the psychological burden is also one of the factors forcing journalists to speak less critically and vocally,” she added.
The male journalist, who covers politics for an online European outlet, said he has considered leaving because of threats online, criticism from pro-Beijing media, and abuse on social media.
“It seems that this is a well-orchestrated pro-government attack against Western media. And even though it’s not official, for me on the ground it feels the message is quite clear,” he said. “Certain reporting is no longer welcome in Hong Kong.”
It is a stark change from when that journalist first moved to Hong Kong. “There were almost no restrictions at all, so there was nothing to worry about,” he said.
That’s no longer the case.
“Now I think I am operating almost in the same way as foreign journalists operating in the mainland (China). It’s not that issues are legally sensitive, but they are politically sensitive, and you have to consider the political environment when reporting,” he told VOA. “I think there is definitely a culture of fear in the city, psychologically and sometimes editorially that affects us as journalists.”
While popular pro-democracy outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News closed, others are trying to fill the gap.
The solo media operation reNews Hong Kong, run by Lam Yin-pong, started up in April as part of efforts to report on political issues via social media.
But the founder admits he too could be targeted for reporting on sensitive topics.
Other media publications such as Flow Hong Kong and Commons HK opened operations outside of the city in an attempt to shield reporters from possible legal action.
But journalists aren’t the only ones to relocate.
Lokman Tsui, a former media professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, moved to the Netherlands after he said he was denied tenure in 2020. He told VOA recently that this was one of several reasons why he left, and in an interview at the time, Tsui said he was unsure if the decision on tenure was politically motivated.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong did not reply to VOA's request for comment.
"Many of my students and journalist friends have been forced to look for different jobs or even change profession altogether or move abroad,” he said.
“It also doesn’t mean there [are] no journalists left in Hong Kong, it’s just that the critical, independent ones are being pressured,” he told VOA.
Tsui listed some subjects that cannot safely be reported: “Not the political stuff, not the sanctions, what happened in 2019, what happened in Yuen Long and July 21,” he said, referring to an attack on unarmed pro-democracy protesters.
Hong Kong police came in for heavy criticism for their response to the incident in July 2019.
But, the academic said, “That doesn’t mean there is nothing to report on.”
The Mandarin-language newspaper Ming Pao in Hong Kong challenged the government over a rising number of COVID-19 cases earlier this year.
“They found a good story critical of the government and caused a public discussion on what’s going on and the government had to come out and clarify the numbers. That was a good piece of journalism,” he said.
But overall, Tsui is pessimistic about the future of press freedom, with the city’s new Chief Executive John Lee proposing a false news law.
“A few years ago, it was perfectly fine to be a journalist in Hong Kong,” Tsui said. But today, journalists are like “the animals you have to protect when they are going to go extinct. They are [the] endangered species in Hong Kong.”
Editor's note: The 28th paragraph has been updated to clarify Tsui's decisions to leave Hong Kong.