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Human Rights Press Awards

High-quality investigative reporting scoops prizes
at Human Rights Press Awards

By Joyce Lau


The 274 entries submitted to the Human Rights Press Awards this year were of the highest quality that the Awards has received in its 20-year history. All major categories – in English and Chinese, in print, broadcast and photography – featured original, investigative reporting from across Asia Pacific.

While some top prizes went to media giants like Reuters, Associated Press and Al Jazeera, this year also featured new voices from both online media and freelancers. In Chinese-language reporting, an Internet start-up called Initium beat traditional print newspapers. In photography, a Singaporean freelancer named Sim Chi Yin found a way of financing a years-long investigation into Chinese gold miners. Her work, called “Dying to breathe”, later caught the attention of The New York Times and National Geographic.

The judges also gave special mention to works that would normally fall outside the HRPA’s parameters, most notably local Hong Kong journalists who ventured into Europe to report on the Syrian refugee crisis.

The HRPA are judged by volunteers from the fields of news media, law, academia and rights activism. They give out both grand prizes and merits for noteworthy works.

English prizes
The grand prize for English-language news and features went to a series called “Seafood from slaves” by Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan for Associated Press. While the reporting started in impoverished parts of Thailand, the journalists tied human rights abuses in the Asian seafood industry to the sorts of packaged goods affluent consumers see everyday in Western supermarkets.

“The shame and open secrecy of slavery’s role in all our modern conveniences has been highlighted before by HRPA winners,” said judge Douglas Wong, a former FCC president. “But the depth of this project is reflected in the breadth of its impact: The freeing of thousands of slave fishermen, and important steps to stop the trade of slave-produced goods.”

The grand prize for online reporting went to David Lague, Paul Mooney, Benjamin Kang Lim, Sui-Lee Wee and Stephanie Nebehay, a cohort of China experts working at Reuters. In “The long arm of China”, they used multiple articles to draw a larger picture of how China engages with minorities and the outside world.

“This is very good, wide-ranging reporting,” said barrister Jacqueline Leong, who has been a HRPA judge since its first year in 1996. “The package as a whole drew together common threads between three different issues: the Dalai Lama, the UN Human Rights Committee, and the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in the nation’s far West.”

“These three are rarely put together,” added judge Armin Kalyanram, a former chairperson of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

The grand prize in English-language broadcasting went to Chan Tau Chou of Al Jazeera English, for a work called “The invisible children of Sabah, Malaysia”.

Chinese prizes
In the past year, Hong Kong has seen a proliferation of new, independent media outlets, particularly online.

For the first time, an online start-up took the grand prize in Chinese-language news and features. The judges honoured Zhao Sile of Initium for a wide-ranging work called “The fate of Chinese rights NGOs”.

Zhao also won one of the feature-writing merits for “Kou Yanding: 128 days of hell and 100km of Salvation.”

On the broadcast side, the grand prize went to Choy Yuk Ling of Radio Television Hong Kong for a work called “The myth of universal suffrage”.

Syria coverage
The Awards are normally limited to coverage of Asia Pacific – which we define as from Central Asia in the West to Japan in the East, Mongolia in the North to Indonesia in the South.
Rules bar reporting from the Middle East and beyond. This is to prevent the HRPA from being flooded with the voluminous coverage that American or British media giants produce on, say, the Iraq war or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are plenty of other international awards that honour the war correspondents reporting out of New York or London.

The HRPA’s goal has always been to focus on investigations by Asia-based reporters – on subjects that affect Asian people and Asian nations.

However, 2015 proved to be a special year, as judges in more than one category wanted to acknowledge the exceptional work done by local Chinese-language reporters on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.

In an era of newsroom budget cuts, few local journalists have the resources to do significant on-the-ground reporting on global issues.

The judges in Chinese broadcasting gave a special prize to Michelle Chan of Radio Television Hong Kong, who followed the plight of refugees in Greece, Hungary, Croatia and Germany. Chan produced two lengthy Cantonese-language TV reports on the issue.

“This is excellent coverage of an international affair by a Chinese-speaking journalist,” said judge Shirley Yam, vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. “The HRPA is the only place where such an effort would be appreciated, given the language barrier… She has picked the right topic, and did it well to benefit local audiences.”

“It’s rare for Hong Kong’s Chinese-language media to support its reporters in covering an international issue – with this scale of production,” added judge Eric Poon. “It should be encouraged, especially as it is an excellent work.”

hrpa01The grand prize in features photography went to Sim Chi Yin, a Singaporean freelancer who began reporting on the dire health problems of Chinese gold miners in 2011 – and pursued the subject until her photographs were finally published in 2015. She followed one family for two years – through illness, disability and death.

Sim took heartbreaking portraits of more than 30 former gold miners suffering from silicosis; several have since died.

It is near impossible for a freelancer to fund a work of this nature – and Sim could only do so thanks to a grant by the US-based Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.

Sim’s photographs have been published in other major international sources like National Geographic.

Joyce Lau is the HRPA’s director. For more information, go to

And the winners are…

News and Features Grand Prize
“Seafood from Slaves” – Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan, Associated Press

News Merits
“Four Hong Kong publishers known for books critical of Chinese regime missing” – Ilaria Maria Sala, The Guardian
“Something hideous Happened in Elishku, Xinjiang” – Benjamin Haas, Agence France-Presse
“Asia’s migrant crisis” – Preethi Jha, Nurdin Hasan and Shafiqul Alam, Agence France-Presse

Features Merits
“Ghost children: in the wake of China’s one-child policy, a generation is lost” – Nathan VanderKlippe, The Globe and Mail
Series on “Crackdown on Chinese rights lawyers” – Verna Yu, South China Morning Post
“Elderly bused in for district election vote” – Jeffie Lam, South China Morning Post

Online Grand Prize
Series on “The long arm of China” – David Lague, Paul Mooney, Benjamin Kang Lim, Sui-Lee Wee and Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters

Online Merits
“Sea slaves: the human misery that feeds pets and livestock” – Ian Urbina, The New York Times
“For Rohingya, fear and forced marriages” – Jonah M. Kessel, The New York Times

Commentary Merit
“Beijing Autumn” – Ilaria Maria Sala, ChinaFile Broadcast Grand Prize
“The invisible children of Sabah, Malaysia” – Chan Tau Chou, Al Jazeera English

Television Merits
“Asia’s meth wars: Myanmar’s state-backed militias are flooding Asia with meth” – Patrick Winn and Mark Oltmanns, GlobalPost
“China’s locked-up lawyers” – Carrie Gracie – BBC World

Radio Merit
“Soccer nuns: the trials of Tibetan women’s football” – Ivan Broadhead – BBC World

News and Features Grand Prize
“The fate of Chinese rights NGOs” – Zhao Sile, Initium

Features Merits
“Kou Yanding: 128 days of hell and 100 kilometres of Salvation” – Zhao Sile, Initium
“Conflict escalates over Christian crosses in Zhejiang” – Zhu Yongxiao, Yazhou Zhoukan / Asiaweek
“Never grow old” – Chen Yimin, Ming Pao Weekly

News Merits
“Vote rigging in District Council election”– Leung Yu Wo, Yuen Pak Yan, Alexander Lam Wai Chung and Lee Nga Man, Apple Daily
“A brother asks society to respect the disabled” – Simpson Cheung Wai-Ming, Yammy Tsang Ying-Mui and Gemini Cheng Pui-Shan, Ming Pao
“Elderly stripped naked on rooftop, waiting to be showered” – Winky Liu Wing-ki and Edward Choi Chuen-Wai, Ming Pao

Online Merits
“Investigation of the Shenzhen landslide: why waste was dumped in an ecological zone” – Yannan Jiang, Initium

Commentary Merit
“A lifetime of suffering for Chinese women” – Zeng Jinyan, Initium

Broadcast Grand Prize
“The myth of universal suffrage” – Choy Yuk Ling, Radio Television Hong Kong

Broadcast Special Prize
“Great escape of Syrian refugees” – Michelle Chan, Radio Television Hong Kong

Television Merits
“Infallible church”– Amy Wong Nga-Man, Radio Television Hong Kong
“Helpless, aged and disabled” – Grace Wong, Radio Television Hong Kong

Radio Merits
Myanmar elections series – Ivan Luk Yuk-Kwong and Wong Lui, Radio Television Hong Kong
“Human rights lawyers” – Chan Miu-Ling, Radio Television Hong Kong

Feature Photography Grand Prize
“Dying to breathe”: a series about a Chinese coal miner – Sim Chi Yin, The New York Times

Feature Photography Special Prize
“Refugees crossing the Aegean Sea for survival” – Nicole Tung, Initium

Spot News Merits
“Defendant” – Ho Kwan-Kin – Sing Tao Daily
“Disputed land” – Sam Tsang, South China Morning Post
“The lonely life of the McSleepers” – Dickson Lee, South China Morning Post
“British Lesbian faces discrimination in Hong Kong” – Yik Yeung-Man, Apple Daily
“The first blood shed in the Yuen Long anti-smuggler movement” – Chan Yik-Chiu, Apple Daily

Feature Photography Merits
Southeast Asian migrant crisis – Christophe Archambault, Agence France-Presse
“Stage performers with Down Syndrome” – Fu Chun-Wai, East Week
Myanmar elections – Ye Aung Thu, Agence France-Presse
“We Shout ‘Erwiana!’” – Ko Chung-Ming, Next Magazine

Student Prizes
High School Students Prize
“Disenfranchised: education for non-Chinese-speaking children in Hong Kong” – Xaviera Artaza of West Island School, Harbour Times

University Broadcast Prize
“Education for all” – Ho Kar-Hei, Leung Ka-Yu, Tsui Kit-Sze, Xi Qiaosong and Wong Wing-Kwan of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Varsity Magazine

University Print Prize
“Transparently Unclear” – Tsim Wing-Sze, Lin Yi-Ting and Kwan Cho-Ming of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Varsity Magazine

University Print Merits
“Finding a way forward” – Jayce Lai, Man Sze-Wai and Tsang Hoi-Kee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Varsity Magazine
“Sexual harassment at Hong Kong’s universities – rarely reported, but not rare” – Medhavi Arora of the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Free Press

University Print Prize
“Questionable police testimony and unfair prosecution after Occupy” – Lam Tsz-Ching and Gloria Chan Hoi-Ching of the Hong Kong Baptist University, Sanpoyan

University Broadcast Prize
Body of work: “The rights of domestic workers” and “Power of the police”– Li Lok Man, Nicolle Liu Ka-Wun, Leung Yat-Nga, Winnie Tang Man-Yan and Yeh Ka-Lun of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Pinpoint website

The whole world in their hands

The judging of the Human Rights Press Awards was in the capable hands of 19 volunteer judges in the fields of media, law, academia and human rights.

Bettina Wassener is a writer, consultant and a former business correspondent for the Financial Times and the International New York Times.

Jacqueline Leong has been the Human Rights Press Awards’ legal expert since its inception in 1996. She is a Hong Kong Senior Counsel and former director of the Hong Kong Bar Association.

Armin Kalyanram was a High Court counsel in Mumbai before moving to Hong Kong in 2006. She is an active volunteer with NGOs like Helpers for Domestic Helpers and the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.

Serenade Woo is a project manager of the International Federation of Journalists Asia Pacific Office. She is also a former member of the executive council of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

Jonathan Hopfner is a managing director at New Narrative. He is a former Reuters News editor.

Douglas Wong is Asia Legal Editor at Bloomberg News. He has also worked for the Financial Times and The Straits Times and is a former FCC president.

Jim Laurie has been a journalist and broadcaster for 40 years and heads Focus Asia Productions, a video and television consultancy. He is also a consultant for CCTV English News.

Liu Kin-ming is a veteran journalist, public affairs consultant, founder of the KM & Associates consultancy and former Awards prizewinner. He was former chairman of the HKJA and a member of the FCC Board.

Shirley Yam is the vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association and a columnist at the South China Morning Post.

Chong Yiu-kwong is a solicitor and a senior teaching fellow at the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Petula Ho Sik-ying is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Hong Kong.

Icarus Wong Ho-yin is the convener of Civil Human Rights Front.

Bruce Lui Ping-kuen is a former principal China reporter for Cable TV and is a Ming Pao columnist and senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Eric Poon Tat-pui is a veteran producer who has made more than 100 documentaries for RTHK since 1993 and is an associate professor at the School of Journalism & Communication at ChineseU.

Joseph Tse Chi Fung is a veteran journalist who was the presenter of the TV programme “City Forum”. He is now a freelance journalist.

Angela Lee is a former board member of Amnesty International Hong Kong and has acted as a judge for the Awards since its inception in 1996.

Carsten Schael is an award-winning German photographer and a member of the FCC Board.

Chung Lam Chi is the Hong Kong Press Photographers’ Association chairman.

Human Rights Press Awards alive

and well after 20 years

In the annals of the struggle for press freedom in Hong Kong, a small chapter deserves to be devoted to the origin and development of the Human Rights Press Awards, writes Francis Moriarty, founding co-chairman of HRPA and founding chairman of the press freedom committee.

The HRPA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a special event featuring a previous two-time winner Fergal Keane, special correspondent with BBC, as guest speaker, and also – for the first time – an evening prizegiving event held in a venue other than the upstairs dining room at the FCC, where we have gathered annually since the awards’ inception.

The HRPA has become firmly established in Hong Kong and recognised globally and is among the more prestigious awards honouring the work of journalists. As one of those who helped found the HRPA, its growing success is of course a source of personal satisfaction, mixed with a large dose of humility when I think about how much work has been done by so many others over these past decades.

But to be perfectly candid, I also feel an abiding sense of guilt. So I guess this is about as good a time as any to confess my first reaction when the suggestion of creating the awards came up.

I tried to kill the idea on the spot.

And I had reasons for wanting to. In my view, the atmosphere in the Club at that time – the early 90s – was not as openly supportive of taking public stands on free speech and free press issues as it is today. Of course, there have always been individuals, including past presidents and Board members (Associates among them), who have bravely stood up for these issues at critical moments. But taking such stands in those pre-handover days could at times be a somewhat lonely proposition. China was already casting a long shadow and Hong Kong’s future was uncertain. Without the security blanket of the departing colonial administration, many individuals were weighing their personal and business interests vis à vis the soon-to-be-incoming order.

I recall a Board discussion in my very early days about the renewal – or not – of the lease on our building. At that time, a chapter of Amnesty International held monthly meetings in the Albert (now Burton) Room. During the discussion, I asked what sort of things members felt might pose a threat to renewal. Someone – not a journalist – said, “maybe as a journalism-based organisation, we ought not let Amnesty meet here, as someone might question the Club’s neutrality.” In those days, “someone” was shorthand for Beijing.

The Club had already been issuing occasional statements on relevant issues on a sort of ad hoc basis. It was evident that there would be increasing need to monitor press freedom issues, so I raised the idea of creating a press freedom committee with then president Hans Vriens, who immediately agreed and asked if I would chair it (the traditional punishment for proposing something). This by no means put an end to the often heated, sometimes bruising discussions on the Board over issuing statements, but this committee provided a place for discussion outside the Board and affirmed our commitment to defending journalists’ values and rights.

It was within this atmosphere when the idea of the Awards first arose in mid-1994. And it helps explain, in part, why I was in full conflict-avoidance mode when someone called me asking for a meeting. She said she wanted to discuss an idea that – perhaps intuiting my response – she did not want to talk about over the phone.

The “she” was Robyn Kilpatrick, then chairperson of Amnesty International Hong Kong. When we did meet I did not yet know what I would quickly come to realise: Robyn was not just someone with an idea; she is a full-fledged force of nature.

Robyn explained the idea of creating press awards similar to the successful and very prestigious awards being given by Amnesty in Britain. Could we not do the same thing in Hong Kong with the assistance of the FCC?

I nodded politely while mentally tabulating all the reasons why we should not go near this proposal with a bargepole. Clearly, this idea had to be stopped in its tracks. But how? I was already beginning to sense Robyn’s determination, which was a little scary.

Obviously, I said, such a venture, however worthy, could not possibly succeed without the involvement of local journalists, but would they support something with the words “human rights” up front? (I was asking myself the same question about the FCC as well.)

Robyn agreed to take it away and I – relieved – thought that was the end of that. However, a week later Robyn was back again saying she had put the idea to Daisy Li, then chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. To my amazement, Daisy and the HKJA backed the idea. “Well,” asked Robyn, unable to disguise her pleasure, “can we count on you?” Sometimes, you have you know when you’re beaten. The Board backed the idea – also to my surprise, frankly – and a joint organising committee of the FCC, HKJA and Amnesty was formed.

We had nothing to start with, no rules, no regulations, no application forms, no resources – nothing. But with the FCC and HKJA involved, it was quickly agreed that these new awards first and foremost would recognise high-quality journalism in the area of human rights, and they would be open both to local journalists (including Macau) and foreign correspondents based in Asia.

My view from the start was that the awards would themselves serve as a barometer of press freedom in the territory and the region. If they endured and flourished, that would be good news. If they didn’t it would be the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. And we all saw the awards as a way to empower journalists who would need support when reporting and writing about sensitive issues.

The timing of the start – coupled with the relatively short period left before the handover on June 30, 1997, and the worries about Hong Kong’s future freedoms – spurred the committee to work quickly. It was decided that the Awards would be open to work that was published or aired between April 1, 1995 and the March 31, 1996, with the first Awards ceremonies scheduled for June 1996.

But given the short time to organise and promote the HRPA, the question worrying the organisers was whether journalists would in fact take part. And, would their organisations even allow them to take part? To address the latter concern, it was decided at the start that all awards would be given to individuals, not organisations.
What we could not have foreseen were the rapidly changing technological developments that the HRPA has had to face. When we began, photographers were using film, and making prints and slides. Audio recording tape is now a museum item, with cassette recorders replaced by MDs, mini-discs, memory sticks, MP3 and now smartphones. VHS tapes became DVDs or posted online. We struggled with traditional categories: Does it make sense in the multi-platform digital age to distinguish between Print and Online? What isn’t online?

Once we managed to have our application form printed, it went out by snail mail and fax to the news media. As the deadline drew closer few forms had been returned and there were signs of worry among some organisers. However, with the deadline almost upon us hundreds of entries poured in. The question of interest was settled. But I still had my own doubts about the deeper goals of the project.

The answers to my doubts came in quick succession. Among the early entries was a Taiwan-made documentary about the Uighurs in Xinjiang that had never been aired, save at a film festival in the US. Not having been shown, it was clearly outside our rules. “Not so quickly,” said the judges. It had not been shown because it had been censored for political reasons by the station that commissioned it, and that was just the sort of thing they felt the awards ought to spotlight. And promptly decided to give it a special award. When the producer accepted his prize he said to me, “May I say something?” This was not in the rundown, and I didn’t know how to respond. Then I heard a judge, Fred Armentrout, saying in a loud voice: “Of course you can!”

The producer then explained how hard his colleagues had worked and how each time they edited the film they were instructed to cut it further – until at last they realised that it was never going to be aired. As he spoke, his hands began to shake. “My team and I,” he said, “we felt like we had been… sexually abused”. And he burst into tears. The audience instantly rose and gave him a lengthy standing ovation.

This was very much in my mind when a young reporter for a Chinese-language paper walked up to me after one ceremony with her winner’s plaque in hand for a story about the political rights of prisoners in China. She held it up in front of her. “Do you know what this means?” she asked. Please tell me, I replied. “I had to fight for this assignment,” she said. “My editors told me, ‘Don’t waste your time. Nobody gives a shit about the rights of prisoners in China’. But I did the story anyway. And then I had to fight, very hard, to get it published. Now, you have given me this – and nobody can ever tell me again, ‘don’t do that story because no one gives a shit’.”

Any questions about whether the HRPA accomplishes anything were settled for me early on, and there have been many similar examples since.

One television entry that has stayed firmly in my mind these 20 years was a beautifully filmed story about homeless street children in Mongolia done by Fergal Keane, then BBC bureau chief in Hong Kong. It won a prize in our first competition. Fergal would win two HRPA awards during his time here. He has since gone on to cover stories ranging from the Rwandan massacres to the recent Syrian refugee exodus.

Over the decades the answers to our early worries have again and again revealed themselves. The total number of journalists who have entered the competition stands at more than 2,000; the number of entries in all categories runs at least four-fold that total. The contestants come from all over the world, and their submissions address issues in virtually every country in Asia. HRPA winners proudly note the awards on their book jackets, resumes and online profiles.

Although at the start the HRPA had few resources, what we did have was a terrific resource in our management and staff. The amount of support they have provided is immeasurable. The big smiles on their faces as they stood at the back of the upstairs dining room during our first awards’ presentation, watching happy winners coming forward to receive their prizes, are unforgettable. And there has been no bigger supporter of the awards than our manager, Gilbert Cheng. The office staff has assisted in countless ways and always worked cooperatively with their colleagues at Amnesty and the HKJA.

So, how did the awards finally get a budget? Well, it was becoming obvious that the awards were a success and I wanted to raise the idea of getting some funding but was unsure of the reaction. Finally, as I gingerly broached the topic at a Board meeting, David Garcia – who was the prime mover of the charity ball – cut me off, saying: “Look, Francis, how much do you need? Just tell us.” Flustered, and afraid of asking too much, I replied: “$30,000”. Dave threw up his arm and said, “I move we approve $30,000 for the HRPA.” I was both relieved and moved.

The HRPA had shown its worth and was well on its way to becoming the flagship FCC event that it is today – the oldest and most prestigious journalism awards in Asia. As it enters its third decade, it requires ever more work and resources. Its future depends entirely upon each of you.

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