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In Hong Kong, 'Normal Journalism' Doesn't Work Anymore

Chris Yeung, chief writer at Citizen News and former president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and Citizen News Chief Editor Daisy Li pose for a photo after they announced Citizen News will cease operations, in Hong Kong, Jan. 3, 2022.

"In the face of a bleak winter of a political purge … we refuse to remain silent." These words greet readers of Flow HK, a news magazine with a self-styled mission to fill the news void of Hong Kong's depleted media scene.

Launched in January last year amid concerns about the possible effect Hong Kong's new national security law might have on the media, Flow HK has headquarters in Taiwan and a team of 10 publishing content online and via a quarterly print edition.

"So many things cannot be discussed and deliberated (in Hong Kong); so many things are so sensitive that people in Hong Kong cannot discuss, and that is why our magazines have 100% press freedom. We have 100% freedom of speech; we allow any form of discussion," said chief editor Sunny Cheung.

Flow HK takes on political topics such as pro-democracy activism overseas and discussions about boycotts of legislative council elections in December, subjects that have become sensitive since the national security law was enforced.

Cheung, 25, is a pro-democracy activist who ran in a Legislative Council election and spoke to the U.S. Congress about the crackdown on activism in Hong Kong.

He left the city in August 2020 because of an outstanding arrest warrant. Now in Washington, Cheung told VOA he believes he is facing several charges but didn't go into further detail.

Reporting at the time said Cheung had been due to stand trial for allegedly taking part in an unauthorized vigil.

When it came to deciding on a base for Flow HK — made up of journalists and writers from Hong Kong —Taiwan was the preferred place because of its similar culture, Cheung said.

But, he added, the "deteriorating environment" in Hong Kong was also a factor.

It is vital that media continue to monitor the government, Cheung said. "We operate (in Taiwan) and hope to maintain our daily Hong Kong diaspora there." Cheung believes more media will look to operate outside the city to avoid the risk of legal action.

Media outlet closures

In the past year, at least four news outlets have been forced to close, including the pro-democracy Apple Daily and Stand News, both of which shuttered after authorities launched legal investigations against staff.

"Without Apple Daily, without Stand News, without Citizen News, there is very limited authentic pro-democracy news that can be read by people on a daily basis," Cheung said.

The risks for pro-democracy media in the city are becoming untenable, said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

"Anything with a pro-democracy stance is going to be taken out," Richburg told VOA. Speaking metaphorically, he added, "They're doing drive-by shootings against anybody who takes a stance that's pro-democracy or anything against the so-called 'patriots' of Hong Kong."

"I think it's inevitable you're going to see a lot more reporting done about Hong Kong from outside of Hong Kong just because the restrictions are too great and the risks are too great."

Some established news outlets have already started to move staff out.

The New York Times reported in 2020 that it was shifting some staff to Seoul, South Korea. In a memo, senior managers cited visa and work permit issues and said the national security law had created "uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism."

In a similar move, local media outlet Initium Media announced in August it had relocated its headquarters to Singapore.

Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam has dismissed concerns that media freedom is in decline in the city.

At a press briefing earlier this month, Lam said she "strongly refute(s) allegations" that the closure of media outlets was "related to the implementation of the national security law."

New ventures emerging

Some staff from shuttered outlets are banding together to start new ventures.

Commons Hong Kong, an online news platform based in Britain and Taiwan, started in October. It has a team of eight, including journalists who worked at Apple Daily.

The Chinese-language site covers news from Hong Kong and international reporting. Stories this week included a report on kung fu master and film producer Checkley Sin Kwok-Lam, who announced a plan to run for the city's chief executive, and updates on a cull of hamsters because of a coronavirus outbreak.

The website's editor in chief, who goes by the pseudonym "J," is based in Taiwan. He told VOA that reporting freely outside of Hong Kong is an advantage.

"We're trying to find many foreign Hong Kongers in the U.K. and Taiwan for some profile interviews; we're trying to find some interesting stories from them. We're also writing some international news for Hong Kongers as well," J said, adding that he had seen a gap in the amount of available news from Hong Kong.

"Normal journalism doesn't work anymore in Hong Kong. You can be arrested or jailed for saying something the government doesn't like," he added.

So far, Commons Hong Kong has made a good start. Its reach on social media in the past 28 days rose to over 900,000, and it has 7,382 Facebook followers.

In her briefing this month, Lam said that since June 2020, Hong Kong had seen an increase in local and foreign media outlets registered in the city.

Richburg disputed that figure, saying the requirement that foreign media register with the government started only after Hong Kong authorities switched the press guidelines in September 2020.

"For any of those foreign media in town, they were already here, so they just decided to go register with the government and information department. That doesn't mean they just moved to Hong Kong."

VOA contacted Hong Kong's Inland Revenue Department for a list of registered media, but the request was denied under the Business Registration Ordinance.

A government fact sheet from November states that citizens are well informed and the media industry "enjoys complete freedom of expression" with 94 daily papers, including 61 in Chinese and 13 in English.

While outlets such as Flow HK and Commons Hong Kong are trying to keep independent news and debate available, it can be a struggle.

Covering Hong Kong overseas isn't easy, Cheung said. "There will be limitations. After all, we don't have our own journalists and correspondents in Hong Kong."