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Covering the Coup: A Myanmar Journalist Reports

Chronicling events on the ground in Yangon, Arakanese freelance journalist Kyaw Hsan Hlaing documents an increasingly perilous situation for journalists in the wake of the military coup.

Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on 14 February 2021. Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on 14 February 2021. (Photo: Sai Aung Main / AFP)

When my roommate woke me early on 1 February with the news that the Myanmar military had staged a coup, I knew that as a freelance journalist focused on human rights I could become a target.

I deactivated my Facebook account and requested the editor at an international news agency delete my byline from some sensitive articles. I then walked around my neighbourhood in Yangon to assess the situation. Everywhere I looked, I saw faces lined with fear and uncertainty.

The military had cut my phone connection, but I heard a rumour that one network was still accessible. I queued for two hours to buy a SIM card, but when I activated it, there was still no connection.

After the military, known as the Tatmadaw, arrested former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi along with more than 40 party officials and declared a year-long state of emergency, everything has taken on a new urgency, including my work as a journalist.

I have been reporting around the clock as a freelance journalist for publications such as TIME, Al Jazeera, The Nation, The Globe and Mail, VICE News and Columbia Journalism Review in partnership with US-based freelance journalist, Emily Fishbein, who worked in Myanmar from 2015 to 2020. During the pandemic, we teamed up to write about armed conflict between the Arakan Army and Burmese military in my native Rakhine state, and we have been working together since.

A protester holds a sign denouncing Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing. A protester holds a sign denouncing Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing. (Photo: STR / AFP)

As hundreds of thousands demonstrate and workers strike across every sector, the situation continues to intensify. On the weekend of 13-14 March, at least 51 people were fatally shot, bringing the total number of people killed by soldiers and police since the coup up to at least 126. According to The New York Times, more than a fifth of those killed have been teenagers.

More than 2,100 people have been arrested as of 13 March, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and many of those arrested were seized from their homes at night without a warrant. At least 37 journalists have also been taken into custody, of whom 15 have not yet been released; some were beaten upon arrest while others have been forced to sign statements that they will cease reporting.

Five prominent Yangon-based media groups have had their licenses revoked and been banned from publishing on any platform, while the military has raided several media outlets, seizing computers, printers and data servers. The military is arbitrarily shutting down the internet and people, including me, are afraid to make phone calls in case the calls could be intercepted.

Living under an authoritarian state is all too familiar in Myanmar, which was run by a military junta from 1962 to 2011. During those years, we were surrounded by informers, the government heavily censored media, and SIM cards were kept prohibitively expensive (upwards of US$7,000 in 1998 and around US$625 in 2011), effectively cutting off our access to news and information.

(click to enlarge)

In 2011, the military began a series of reforms, and in 2013, the price of SIM cards dropped hundredfold. I accessed the internet for the first time from my village in Rakhine, on the western coast, in 2014.

Myanmar held openly democratic elections in November 2015, bringing the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto leader, and although the country was still under a 2008 military-drafted constitution allowing the civilian government and generals to share power, many expected that the NLD would counter the military’s influence and champion democracy and human rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi dashed expectations when she defended the military against charges of genocide for its treatment of the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice in 2019. Other ethnic groups in Myanmar, including my own Arakanese community (also called ethnic Rakhine), have also been bitterly disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn human rights abuses that the Tatmadaw allegedly committed, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Instead, her government backed the Tatmadaw’s violent campaigns, blocked humanitarian access and, in parts of my home state and the neighbouring Chin state, imposed the world’s longest internet shutdown. Since 21 June 2019, government restrictions on the internet left more than 1 million people without effective access for 19 months.

The NLD government also cracked down on press freedom, especially in Rakhine, where it blocked independent media access to conflict-affected areas beginning in 2016, with the exception of pre-arranged reporting tours in which journalists were accompanied by government minders.

During the first four years of NLD’s term (2015-2018), 67 lawsuits were filed against journalists and media personnel. Of these, 31 were filed by the government; 11 by the military; and the rest by religious institutions, tycoons, employers, political parties, armed groups and others, according to a report in May 2020 by Yangon-based freedom of expression organisation Athan.

Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reports from Yangon. Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reports from Yangon. (Photo: Supplied)

More than three dozen journalists were charged with defamation, while others were charged with supporting an unlawful association or alleged terrorist group when they reported on conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations or interviewed their spokespersons.

In 2018, the government imprisoned Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for possessing classified information which police had planted on them, while they were reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine. They spent more than 500 days behind bars before being released in May 2019 under a presidential amnesty.

While the NLD severely curtailed media freedoms, sinking back under military rule is far worse. Almost immediately, journalism became significantly more challenging and dangerous, and the obstacles and risks are increasing by the day.

On 27 February, I went out to observe the protests. After being tear-gassed, I ran away from authorities only to come face to face with a soldier. He pointed a gun at my friend and me, and said: “Back up, I don’t want to shoot you.” I backed up and immediately left the area.

Mapping Myanmar (click to enlarge)

What’s more, the social media landscape has changed dramatically. Facebook, which serves as the main source of news, information and communications in Myanmar, has long been used as a vehicle for hate speech and disinformation targeting ethnic minorities. After the military banned the platform on 4 February, users migrated to Twitter en masse. Two days later, the military banned Twitter as well, but users have continued to access both platforms using VPNs.

Since the coup, my Twitter followers jumped from around 400 to nearly 10,000 as of 14 March. I have not received any serious threats online, but I worry that malicious activity will increase; I have already seen a spike in trolling and disinformation on the platform.

Intermittent internet shutdowns have posed another major problem. While the hazards of social media are many, the lack of online access is even more dangerous. Unable to check reliable news sites or trusted sources to verify information, I have been calling my contact at a fact-checking civil society organisation for assistance. But now she sometimes replies that the group is unable to confidently make an assessment.

With arrests increasing, I have taken extensive precautions to protect myself. On the day of the coup,I wrote down important phone numbers in my notebook, using nicknames in case police confiscated it. Next, I deleted all contacts, audio files and messages from my phone. I began using VPNs to access the internet, and when I use phone data, I switch between four SIM cards to separate my personal communications, browsing history, and reporting work – a strategy I had also used when reporting on armed conflict in Rakhine.

It is now much harder to collect information as I do not trust anyone. When I go outside, I am constantly alert and carefully assessing my surroundings. Informers could be anywhere, and I often feel as though people are watching me, especially when I carry my camera. I don’t talk openly with taxi drivers, and I am guarded even with my closest friends and family. I avoid talking deeply about my feelings and personal information as well, because people could take advantage of my vulnerabilities.

I see journalism as a tool to solve problems, and I am particularly motivated to promote human rights and social justice. I aim for in-depth coverage which prioritises the inclusion of diverse voices and especially those who are vulnerable and marginalised, such as displaced people, ethnic minorities and those living in remote areas.

Covering under-reported stories during an emergency, I feel an extra sense of responsibility to document what is happening accurately, informatively and effectively. Despite the risks and pressures, I feel strongly motivated to persevere.

The most important thing is to share what is happening in Myanmar with the world. My country has already gone to the dark side, and if we don’t do anything, we may become trapped under military control for a long time. We need to end this situation and find our way to the light. Each of us has our own role to play. For me, that role is journalism.

As told to Emily Fishbein, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing’s reporting partner, on 14 February 2021. Last updated on 14 March 2021, hours after the military issued a directive to telecoms operators to shut down the internet indefinitely in the country.


Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is an Arakanese student, researcher, and freelance journalist from Myanmar’s Rakhine state who focuses on peace, human rights; and social justice. He works to share on-the-ground situations of diverse people, especially marginalised and conflict-affected minorities, with the international community.

Emily Fishbein is an independent freelance journalist who worked in Myanmar from 2015 to 2020 and plans to return when she is able. She seeks to share diverse voices and perspectives, especially highlighting underreported stories. Prior to writing, she worked with refugees and displaced persons in Myanmar and the United States.

 

Covering the Coup: A Myanmar Journalist Reports

Chronicling events on the ground in Yangon, Arakanese freelance journalist Kyaw Hsan Hlaing documents an increasingly perilous situation for journalists in the wake of the military coup.

Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on 14 February 2021. Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on 14 February 2021. (Photo: Sai Aung Main / AFP)

When my roommate woke me early on 1 February with the news that the Myanmar military had staged a coup, I knew that as a freelance journalist focused on human rights I could become a target.

I deactivated my Facebook account and requested the editor at an international news agency delete my byline from some sensitive articles. I then walked around my neighbourhood in Yangon to assess the situation. Everywhere I looked, I saw faces lined with fear and uncertainty. 

The military had cut my phone connection, but I heard a rumour that one network was still accessible. I queued for two hours to buy a SIM card, but when I activated it, there was still no connection.

After the military, known as the Tatmadaw, arrested former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi along with more than 40 party officials and declared a year-long state of emergency, everything has taken on a new urgency, including my work as a journalist.

I have been reporting around the clock as a freelance journalist for publications such as TIME, Al Jazeera, The Nation, The Globe and Mail, VICE News and Columbia Journalism Review in partnership with US-based freelance journalist, Emily Fishbein, who worked in Myanmar from 2015 to 2020. During the pandemic, we teamed up to write about armed conflict between the Arakan Army and Burmese military in my native Rakhine state, and we have been working together since. 

A protester holds a sign denouncing Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing. A protester holds a sign denouncing Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing. (Photo: STR / AFP)

As hundreds of thousands demonstrate and workers strike across every sector, the situation continues to intensify. On the weekend of 13-14 March, at least 51 people were fatally shot, bringing the total number of people killed by soldiers and police since the coup up to at least 126. According to The New York Times, more than a fifth of those killed have been teenagers. 

More than 2,100 people have been arrested as of 13 March, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and many of those arrested were seized from their homes at night without a warrant. At least 37 journalists have also been taken into custody, of whom 15 have not yet been released; some were beaten upon arrest while others have been forced to sign statements that they will cease reporting.

Five prominent Yangon-based media groups have had their licenses revoked and been banned from publishing on any platform, while the military has raided several media outlets, seizing computers, printers and data servers. The military is arbitrarily shutting down the internet and people, including me, are afraid to make phone calls in case the calls could be intercepted. 

Living under an authoritarian state is all too familiar in Myanmar, which was run by a military junta from 1962 to 2011. During those years, we were surrounded by informers, the government heavily censored media, and SIM cards were kept prohibitively expensive (upwards of US$7,000 in 1998 and around US$625 in 2011), effectively cutting off our access to news and information.

(click to enlarge)

In 2011, the military began a series of reforms, and in 2013, the price of SIM cards dropped hundredfold. I accessed the internet for the first time from my village in Rakhine, on the western coast, in 2014.

Myanmar held openly democratic elections in November 2015, bringing the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto leader, and although the country was still under a 2008 military-drafted constitution allowing the civilian government and generals to share power, many expected that the NLD would counter the military’s influence and champion democracy and human rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi dashed expectations when she defended the military against charges of genocide for its treatment of the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice in 2019. Other ethnic groups in Myanmar, including my own Arakanese community (also called ethnic Rakhine), have also been bitterly disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn human rights abuses that the Tatmadaw allegedly committed, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Instead, her government backed the Tatmadaw’s violent campaigns, blocked humanitarian access and, in parts of my home state and the neighbouring Chin state, imposed the world’s longest internet shutdown. Since 21 June 2019, government restrictions on the internet left more than 1 million people without effective access for 19 months.

The NLD government also cracked down on press freedom, especially in Rakhine, where it blocked independent media access to conflict-affected areas beginning in 2016, with the exception of pre-arranged reporting tours in which journalists were accompanied by government minders.

During the first four years of NLD’s term (2015-2018), 67 lawsuits were filed against journalists and media personnel. Of these, 31 were filed by the government; 11 by the military; and the rest by religious institutions, tycoons, employers, political parties, armed groups and others, according to a report in May 2020 by Yangon-based freedom of expression organisation Athan. 

Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reports from Yangon. Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reports from Yangon. (Photo: Supplied)

More than three dozen journalists were charged with defamation, while others were charged with supporting an unlawful association or alleged terrorist group when they reported on conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations or interviewed their spokespersons. 

In 2018, the government imprisoned Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for possessing classified information which police had planted on them, while they were reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine. They spent more than 500 days behind bars before being released in May 2019 under a presidential amnesty.

While the NLD severely curtailed media freedoms, sinking back under military rule is far worse. Almost immediately, journalism became significantly more challenging and dangerous, and the obstacles and risks are increasing by the day. 

On 27 February, I went out to observe the protests. After being tear-gassed, I ran away from authorities only to come face to face with a soldier. He pointed a gun at my friend and me, and said: “Back up, I don’t want to shoot you.” I backed up and immediately left the area.

Mapping Myanmar (click to enlarge)

What’s more, the social media landscape has changed dramatically. Facebook, which serves as the main source of news, information and communications in Myanmar, has long been used as a vehicle for hate speech and disinformation targeting ethnic minorities. After the military banned the platform on 4 February, users migrated to Twitter en masse. Two days later, the military banned Twitter as well, but users have continued to access both platforms using VPNs.

Since the coup, my Twitter followers jumped from around 400 to nearly 10,000 as of 14 March. I have not received any serious threats online, but I worry that malicious activity will increase; I have already seen a spike in trolling and disinformation on the platform.

Intermittent internet shutdowns have posed another major problem. While the hazards of social media are many, the lack of online access is even more dangerous. Unable to check reliable news sites or trusted sources to verify information, I have been calling my contact at a fact-checking civil society organisation for assistance. But now she sometimes replies that the group is unable to confidently make an assessment.

With arrests increasing, I have taken extensive precautions to protect myself. On the day of the coup,I wrote down important phone numbers in my notebook, using nicknames in case police confiscated it. Next, I deleted all contacts, audio files and messages from my phone. I began using VPNs to access the internet, and when I use phone data, I switch between four SIM cards to separate my personal communications, browsing history, and reporting work – a strategy I had also used when reporting on armed conflict in Rakhine.

It is now much harder to collect information as I do not trust anyone. When I go outside, I am constantly alert and carefully assessing my surroundings. Informers could be anywhere, and I often feel as though people are watching me, especially when I carry my camera. I don’t talk openly with taxi drivers, and I am guarded even with my closest friends and family. I avoid talking deeply about my feelings and personal information as well, because people could take advantage of my vulnerabilities.

I see journalism as a tool to solve problems, and I am particularly motivated to promote human rights and social justice. I aim for in-depth coverage which prioritises the inclusion of diverse voices and especially those who are vulnerable and marginalised, such as displaced people, ethnic minorities and those living in remote areas. 

Covering under-reported stories during an emergency, I feel an extra sense of responsibility to document what is happening accurately, informatively and effectively. Despite the risks and pressures, I feel strongly motivated to persevere. 

The most important thing is to share what is happening in Myanmar with the world. My country has already gone to the dark side, and if we don’t do anything, we may become trapped under military control for a long time. We need to end this situation and find our way to the light. Each of us has our own role to play. For me, that role is journalism.

As told to Emily Fishbein, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing’s reporting partner, on 14 February 2021. Last updated on 14 March 2021, hours after the military issued a directive to telecoms operators to shut down the internet indefinitely in the country.


Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is an Arakanese student, researcher, and freelance journalist from Myanmar’s Rakhine state who focuses on peace, human rights; and social justice. He works to share on-the-ground situations of diverse people, especially marginalised and conflict-affected minorities, with the international community.

 

Emily Fishbein is an independent freelance journalist who worked in Myanmar from 2015 to 2020 and plans to return when she is able. She seeks to share diverse voices and perspectives, especially highlighting underreported stories. Prior to writing, she worked with refugees and displaced persons in Myanmar and the United States.

 

Hong Kong Student Journalists React to New Media Landscape

Given recent arrests and accreditation restrictions, would you pursue a journalism career in Hong Kong? Marianna Cerini catches up with three students at the University of Hong Kong to hear their thoughts. 

On 22 September 2020, Kenneth Kwok Ka-chuen, the chief superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force, sent a letter to four of the city’s news associations, including the FCC. In the letter, Kwok laid out plans to amend the “definition of ‘media representatives’ under the Police General Orders”.

The new definition recognises journalists who have registered with the Government News and Media Information Service or who work at “internationally recognised and reputable” foreign media outlets.

According to police, the policy targets “self-proclaimed reporters” who have allegedly “obstructed police work, and even assaulted police officers”; however, it excludes freelance and student journalists, independent media outlets, and those accredited by local press assocations, effectively establishing a subjective accreditation system.

The FCC released a statement in opposition to the decision on 23 September, stating: “This move is another step in the erosion of Hong Kong’s once cherished press freedom as it would give the police – rather than reporters and editors – the power to determine who covers the police … The policy would be a serious blow for freelancers and student reporters – two groups of journalists who have provided some of the most compelling reporting from last year’s protests and police actions.”

Given the increasingly controlled atmosphere for professional and student journalists alike, what is running through the minds of the next generation of reporters? We asked undergraduate and master’s students from the University of Hong Kong about their observations, concerns and plans for the future.

 

Meet the Students

HKU Journalism Students From left to right: William Langley, Lauren Faith Lau and Julianna Louise Untiveros Barcela.

William Langley, 24, Master of Journalism 2021 | Lauren Faith Lau, 20, Bachelor of Journalism 2022 | Julianna Louise Untiveros Barcela, 18, Bachelor of Journalism 2024

 

What inspired you to study journalism?

William Langley (WL): I am originally from the UK. I studied Chinese at university, then moved to Guangzhou to work as a researcher at a Chinese genealogy startup where I helped Chinese migrants trace their roots.

I started freelancing and translating on the side, then decided to switch to journalism full-time. In March 2020, I had a job lined up at The Myanmar Times, but that fell through due to the pandemic. So I applied to the HKU Master of Journalism programme as another way of getting into journalism full-time. I arrived here in August 2020, so the national security law was already in place.

Lauren Faith Lau (LFL): My interest in journalism started when I was in high school. The 2016 Hong Kong Legislative Council Election, in particular, ignited my passion for reporting on public affairs. I saw the power of media – how it can engage people and act as a public service.

Julianna Louise Untiveros Barcela (JLUB): During high school, I didn’t see the point of news. But my perspective shifted in early 2020, when I took my DSE (Diploma of Secondary Education). My class graduated in the wake of Hong Kong’s protest movement and the beginning of the pandemic. It was that series of events that made me realise the impact that journalism can have.

 

What type of journalism do you plan to pursue?

WL: In Guangzhou, I focused on less-sensitive cultural features since I didn’t have a journalism visa. Now that I am in Hong Kong, I hope to get into more timely stories and deep dives on current affairs, politics and investigations.

I will write whatever I can get my hands on in relation to China, but I am particularly interested in politics and the intersection with religion, immigration and culture.

LFL: So far, I have done a lot of hard news internships – I would like to be a correspondent abroad or explore investigative journalism. I love asking questions and talking to people, so I’d like to integrate that into my work.

JLUB: I don’t know yet, as I am just starting my journalism programme. Perhaps longform features, because I am passionate about writing.

 

William Langley Langley researching a story in Guangdong in March 2019.

How has the national security law affected you?

WL: The law only underscores the importance of journalism as an essential public service. If you have been living and working in Hong Kong, I can see how earth-shattering the law must be.

But as a foreign journalist hoping to work in China, it doesn’t change much for me. Compared with Guangdong, it’s still freer and easier to report here.

LFL: My approach to journalism has changed. Before the protests, I never realised the role videos and photography play in storytelling.

So recently, I’ve found a new appreciation for different types of visual and multimedia journalism. I’ve also paid more attention to citizen journalism – and how it can be crucial, if done properly, to disseminate news.

JLUB: It has only further amplified how important journalism is to the public, and to me.

 

What about the police ban on student journalists?

WL: It has not impacted me directly, but it is a shame. Coming from China, I was looking forward to working openly as a freelancer in Hong Kong. These accreditation changes make me wonder if the government will introduce journalism visas next.

That said, a friend of mine went to a protest as a student journalist after the announcement. He wore an HKU Faculty of Journalism press pass and the police let him report. For me, that is a sign that there is a bit more leeway than what you’d see in China. But maybe he was just lucky.

LFL: I’m practicing journalism with a news agency right now, so I am not so affected by the accreditation problem. But for university online media and student reporters, it is extremely unfair.

As students, we all want to gain on-the-ground experience. These restrictions hold us back. What student journalists offered to the world in terms of reporting in 2019 was irreplaceable. They are in a unique position of being able to communicate with students and youth.

Students also understand how the [movement] uses social media and how young people in Hong Kong think. I know many of them found so much meaning through their work last year; it is sad to see this right ripped away.

 

Lauren Faith Lau Lau doing a standup report for i-Cable News Channel during a 2020 internship.

Have your lecturers had to adapt any lessons?

WL: If anything, I’ve been surprised by how outspoken they have been about the situation. My lecturers have been adamant that they are not going to compromise on news values – they are going to keep doing what they do. That’s really inspiring.

JLUB: Just last week [in November 2020] in one of my classes on press freedom, our teachers had to hold back a slide, because of potential repercussions. But that is the only instance I have seen.

LFL: I’ve been taking a public affairs reporting course, and our professor has been encouraging us to continue as normal. Support from journalists before me makes me believe there is still a role for me to play in this world. It’s a great time to be a journalist because there are so many important stories to tell.

 

Do you plan to stay in Hong Kong after you graduate?

WL: Yeah, I would really like to work here for a couple of years then move to China, or perhaps Myanmar, where there are many micro examples of ‘China in the world’ type stories, be that Belt and Road investments, drug trafficking rings, or casino towns sprouting up.

This winter, I am doing an internship at the SCMP on the China desk. I would love to get back to mainland China eventually and work as a China correspondent.

LFL: I don’t think Hong Kong will be a good place to develop as a young journalist. Of course, I am eager to seize as many opportunities as possible to hone my skills and grow professionally here. This is my home, and the Hong Kong story is one I really want to tell. I would love to be a part of that. I just don’t know how feasible it will be.

JLUB: I also don’t think Hong Kong will be the best place to pursue a career in journalism, especially as we don’t know what’s going to happen over the next five or 10 years. I don’t have a set path yet, however, I am open to going overseas for work.

WL: I would disagree with the idea that Hong Kong isn’t a great place to learn, but I have a different perspective. I grew up in Norfolk, England – I love it, but it’s a rural backwater. There’s one newspaper and little interest in what goes on there outside of the local community.

By contrast, Hong Kong’s media landscape is well developed and it’s a huge city in the middle of Asia – people all over the world care about what happens here. There are so many stories to cover, and I think Hong Kong is a great place to learn and work.

 

Julianna Louise Untiveros Barcela Barcela will graduate from HKU in 2024.

What is your hope for journalism in Hong Kong?

WL: I think journalists will be in a difficult position in the mid- and long-term. Although, even in the strictest of places, like Myanmar and China, journalists are still doing excellent reporting, exposing corruption and criticising the governments. They can still produce great journalism – and I hope they persevere.

LFL: I hope they do the best they can. Things have been happening unexpectedly and quickly, what we can do is remember why we pursued journalism in the first place. This is what motivates us to push forward with our jobs.

JLUB: The future of media organisations in Hong Kong seems to be heading down a dark pathway, but I hope that the passion of journalists doesn’t falter under such dire circumstances.


Marianna CeriniMarianna Cerini is a freelance journalist writing about culture, travel and lifestyle. In Asia since 2010, her work has been published by CNN Style, Al Jazeera and The Daily Beast among others

 

Why Fact-Checking Is More Crucial Than Ever

By Marianna Cerini

With misinformation on the rise, AFP Fact Check’s Cat Barton says fact-checking is fast becoming an essential public service. 

Cat Barton has been with Agence France-Presse (AFP) for more than a decade. Her career has taken her across Asia, from Dhaka to Hanoi to Hong Kong, where she now heads up AFP Fact Check, the international news agency’s content verification operation. 

Fact-checking is more crucial than ever. Not only has the pandemic fuelled an ‘infodemic’ of fake news, but social media companies are also struggling to vet an onslaught of deceptive and divisive content from politicians and hate groups. It’s an uphill battle, but Barton and her team are working hard to combat deliberately incorrect, doctored, or otherwise misleading information.

Cat Barton Cat Barton reporting in Bangladesh in 2009. PHOTO: Cat Barton

How did you get into fact-checking? 

Cat Barton: I moved to Hong Kong to work on the Asia-Pacific editing desk, when AFP started this new programme called AFP Fact Check, back in 2018. Interested, I got involved early on. We started fact-checking reports from four countries: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 

Every day, a handful of reporters would look for deliberately misleading online information and find ways to debunk it. The department has grown rapidly since then. Today, we cover 12 countries in Asia, have more than a dozen reporters on the fact-checking team, and publish in multiple languages. AFP sees fact-checking as a key pillar of a news agency’s role in the 21st century, because misinformation is pervasive in the digital media landscape. 

 

What surprised you the most about misinformation? 

CB: At first, I was really surprised by how misinformation is exactly the same in different languages. The same message just crops up across local markets with a few clever tweaks – maybe the name of a city has been changed, or the name of the health minister – but it’s still shared with the same images, the same claims, the same editing, and wording taken out of context, the same memes, and graphics. We often have situations where our fact-checker in Jakarta, for instance, would say, ‘Hey, you know that misinformation from Buenos Aires? We just found it here too.’

 

What’s one of your top fake news-busting moments? 

CB: One of my all-time favourites was during the 2019 Indian general election. Rahul Gandhi, an Indian politician who was the opposition leader at the time, gave a funny speech about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been promising to gift farmers fields on the moon. 

However, online purveyors of misinformation edited the video of Gandhi’s speech to make it look like he was the one who was making those promises. It was such a simple, clever piece of misinformation because they made it seem so plausible. It would have fooled most people. That was very satisfying to unpick and debunk. 

 

What’s been your focus so far this year? 

CB: My team has done some amazing work debunking coronavirus misinformation. As an example: Early on in Hong Kong, when people were panicking about face mask shortages, a suggestion began circulating online that, if you steamed your face mask, you could reuse it up to five times. We did a deep dive into the subject. 

We broke down the videos making that claim, talked to experts and Hong Kong health authorities, and discovered where the original message originated. We demonstrated with real forensic accuracy that the whole thing was misconstrued on Weibo, then amplified by a Hong Kong politician on Facebook. 

 

Why is fact-checking so important right now? 

CB: The media industry has been upended over the last decade or so. We’re no longer the gatekeepers of information – anyone with an internet connection and a Facebook account can freely publish whatever they please. As a consequence, misinformation has swelled. Across the countries we work in, we see different motivations – political or financial – and it’s so important that we push back. Otherwise, it can be hard for the general public to discern the truth. That’s all the more important in places like India, for instance, where the literacy rate is quite low. 

 

It’s a lot of responsibility. Does it take a toll on you?

CB: Fact-checking is obviously a difficult task. It can feel dispiriting when you’re fact-checking pernicious misinformation that’s designed to confuse or mislead people, or that could have real, serious repercussions. But AFP sees it as an important public service, so we are very proud of the work we do. 

 

Looking ahead, how do you expect the role of fact checkers to evolve? 

CB: As an organisation, we have always ensured that the information we publish is correct. But that’s no longer enough. Now, it’s part of our mission to actively find inaccurate misinformation and correct it. We’re now using a good chunk of our journalistic resources to debunk misinformation, and I think that’s going to become even more essential as the media landscape evolves. 

Looking forward, I also think traditional and legacy media will work more closely with tech companies to combat misinformation. We anticipate misinformation to continue to proliferate online and become more sophisticated and hard to detect, for example, the use of ‘deep fakes’ [sophisticated fake videos or audio that replicate a person’s likeness using special effects and artificial intelligence]. 

Learn more about AFP Fact Check: factcheck.afp.com

Cat’s Toolkit

Stockpile your fact-checking arsenal with these free online resources:

TinEye
Helpful for reverse-image searches. Also a great way for photographers and creatives to catch copyright infringement. bit.ly/3kZkmbu 

InVID/WeVerify
Verifies videos. Can breakdown videos into keyframes for reverse image search. Also useful for checking metadata. bit.ly/319trXj 

Carbon Dating The Web
Used to verify the date a webpage was created to confirm or debunk the legitimacy of a source. carbondate.cs.odu.edu 

WolframAlpha
A weather-checking resource. You can prove a video wasn’t taken at the time it claims if the weather doesn’t match. Wolframalpha.com

YouTube DataViewer
Provides the upload time of a YouTube video. Used to verify if an incident happened at the time or place claimed. citizenevidence.amnestyusa.org

The Future of Visas for Foreign Journalists in Hong Kong

As the visa situation for foreign journalists in Hong Kong grows murkier, Morgan M. Davis looks for precedents across the border.

U.S. China flags

Hong Kong has long been viewed as a welcoming place for foreign journalists and news agencies. Visa rejections are rare, so long as the applicant in question has the skills and experience to do the job. But Article 54 in the new national security law, which seeks to manage “organs of foreign countries and international organisations”, has raised concerns about potential visa restrictions. 

Simultaneously, both the US and China have weaponised journalist visas amid souring relations. On 6 August, the FCC released a statement on the issue. “The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong is aware of recent examples of delays involving the issuing of visas to foreign journalists in Hong Kong, as well as suggestions by the Chinese government that more foreign journalists could face repercussions in response to US actions,” wrote the FCC. 

“The FCC calls on the Trump administration to lift its restrictions on Chinese media working in the US, and on Hong Kong and China’s governments to refrain from retribution in targeting US media and journalists working in Hong Kong.” This “downward spiral of retaliatory actions” not only puts journalists at risk yet also fails the public “that needs accurate, professionally produced information now more than ever,” the statement continued. 

In response to the FCC’s statement, the Commissioner’s Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, saying “if the US is bent on going down the wrong path, China will be compelled to take necessary and just reactions to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests. It is the US that has caused the situation and should be solely responsible for it.” 

Later that month, the Immigration Department rejected a visa transfer for Aaron Mc Nicholas – an incoming editor of Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) – after a six-month wait, despite the Irish journalist having been granted prior visas to work in Hong Kong for Bloomberg and Storyful. The department did not provide an explanation to HKFP. 

When The Correspondent inquired, the department declined to comment on specifics. A spokesperson responded: “Hong Kong has always adopted a pragmatic and open policy on the employment of professionals… including journalistic work.” In the absence of further information, such developments are troubling. “It’s an evolving situation and it involves a maddening degree of uncertainty for everybody,” says Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

“You have to assume it’s because [the government doesn’t] like what HKFP is doing, and honestly, why would they?” says Butler of Mc Nicholas’s visa rejection. “There’s a lot of coverage that is critical of the Hong Kong government and China.” 

Lingling Wei Lingling Wei at a press conference during the 2018 National People’s Congress. Photo: Supplied

Insights from the Mainland

Many foreign journalists working in China have been directly impacted by rising US–China tensions. In March, the central government effectively expelled 13 foreign journalists – all of whom worked for American publications. 

In most cases, the government abruptly rescinded the journalists’ press accreditations and instructed them to leave the country within as little as five days. According to statements by the Chinese government, the move was a direct response to US restrictions on Chinese journalists. Just days earlier, the US had forced 60 Chinese nationals who worked at state media outlets to vacate the US or secure an appropriate visa to stay. 

In early September, Chinese authorities informed several journalists at American news outlets that their press credential applications were being processed, rather than automatically renewed, as is routine. 

The visas of foreign journalists are tied to their press accreditation, and both are usually renewed on an annual basis. This time, journalists received temporary extensions of just two months, with a clear warning that they may be revoked any time. 

Within the same week, two Australian correspondents – Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith – rushed to leave the country after Chinese police visited their homes about a national security investigation. Their departures came just days after the central government confirmed the arrest of Cheng Lei, an Australian working for China’s state media. 

In the case of Australian journalists, the turmoil can be attributed to fragile relations between the two countries and critical China coverage by Australian media over the past two years. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, this year’s series of forced departures of foreign journalists from China are thought to be the first outright expulsions since 1998.

Bill Birtles On 8 September 2020, Bill Birtles arrives in Sydney after rushing out of China. PHOTO: AFP / TARYN SOUTHCOMBE / ABC NEWS

‘Pawns in the bigger struggle’ 

Lingling Wei, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was among those forced to leave China this year. Born in China, Wei moved to the US as a young adult and became an American citizen in 2010. The journalist returned to China in 2011 to write for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing.

“For me, going back to China to practice independent reporting was the kind of career I [had always] wanted,” says Wei, calling the experience a “dream come true”. Over the past nine years, Wei focused on the internationalisation of China’s renminbi and the US–China trade war. But in March, she became collateral damage in the economic battle she was reporting on. The government rescinded Wei’s press credentials, effectively banning her from working as a journalist in China, Hong Kong or Macao. 

“We were experiencing many more challenges getting access to people, be it business [executives] or officials,” Wei says of the reporting situation in China prior to her forced departure. Even so, Wei never expected to leave this way. “It broke my heart,” she says. 

Gerry Shih, a China correspondent for The Washington Post who had worked in Beijing for five years, including at The Associated Press, was expelled around the same time. He called the experience “surreal” when he spoke at the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) 2020 awards on 26 August. 

Though disappointed by the decision, Shih says the “writing was on the wall” for some time. “These [expelled] diplomats and journalists are pawns in the bigger struggle,” he said of the US–China fight. Many in the cull were journalists who had lived and worked in China for more than a decade. They love China and their lives there, adds Wei. Among them, Australian Chris Buckley, who had been based in mainland China for The New York Times and Reuters since 1998, was expelled in May. 

Likewise, Canadian Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times, lived in China for more than 20 years before the government stripped his press credentials in March. Johnson, who learned of his expulsion via email while in London, wrote about the consequences of fraying China–US relations in an opinion piece for The New York Times

“Taken individually, stories of severed friendships and strained family ties seem insignificant – certainly they do when you talk to a true believer who thinks that the US policy toward China is necessary to make the world safe for democracy.” “Yet cumulatively these small wounds change how all of us experience the world, forming a collective trauma over the loss of an optimistic era dating back several decades, when the world seemed to be opening up, however imperfectly.”

Gerry Shih Gerry Shih discusses his departure from China at The SOPA 2020 Awards on 26 August. PHOTO: SOPA

Finding a future in journalism

For Wei, the last six months have felt more like a decade. She moved back to New York City in May at the height of the pandemic, with her husband and seven-year-old following later. She says The Wall Street Journal has been supportive, giving her the option to move anywhere. 

The Chinese government also allowed her to stay two extra months in China to be with her sick mother and pack up her life, she notes. “I will always be grateful for those officials who helped me,” she says. “I really have no complaints. It is what it is.”

Meanwhile, Shih has relocated to Seoul where he continues to cover China. In May, he won the 2020 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia for his extensive China reporting. Buckley is also reporting on China, though his location is unclear, and he did not respond to our interview request. 

Unfortunately, journalists have few options if a government chooses to quash press freedoms, says Wei. If media suppression escalates in Hong Kong, she says journalists may face difficult decisions. 

“In my situation, I still believe in what I’m doing,” says Wei, who continues to report on China from New York City. If journalists are concerned about their visas or safety, she says, they should consider their priorities and mental well-being. 

There is no shame in leaving the industry if that is what’s right for you, she says. It’s something she contemplated doing herself, in order to stay in China. 

In the end, Wei’s passion for journalism overcame her doubts. “When things like this happen, it really makes you question whether [journalism] is something you should keep doing,” she says. 

Wei’s mother also encouraged her daughter to persevere, since Wei has a wealth of China expertise that is valuable, regardless of where she is based. “That kind of knowledge and insight cannot be easily taken away,” says Wei.

PRESS FREEDOM: ASIA IN FOCUS

Every year, Reporters Without Borders ranks 180 destinations in its World Press Freedom Index. Here’s how countries across the region stack up: 

Press Freedom in Asia Source: Reporters Without Borders

Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Implications for Journalists

As soon as the government enacted the national security law on 30 June, the rules changed for Hong Kong journalists. Kate Springer discusses the potential implications with legal and journalism experts. 

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam discusses the national security law at a press conference on 7 July, 2020. PHOTO: ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam discusses the national security law at a press conference on 7 July, 2020. PHOTO: ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP

When the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacted the Hong Kong national security law on 30 June, the city changed overnight. The far-reaching law criminalises “terrorist activities”, “secession”, “subversion”, “collusion” with foreign entities and inciting “hatred among Hong Kong residents” towards the local or central government – not just in Hong Kong, but anywhere in the world. The law, however, does not define these crimes, leaving room for interpretation by authorities and the courts. 

Despite assurances in Article 4 that “freedoms of speech, of the press, of publication” will be safeguarded, many journalists and news agencies remain concerned. There is good reason to worry: For starters, the law states that the government will take greater measures to regulate and manage the media, as well as “promote national security education” in the media. 

In addition, the government could require journalists to relinquish sensitive material, if it relates to an investigation under the new law. It remains unclear if journalists can interview pro-democracy voices, criticise the law or print offending slogans. On 7 July, the FCC hosted a panel with veteran journalists and legal experts to hear their thoughts on the national security law (NSL). 

From the high-profile arrest of Jimmy Lai to mass disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers and unexplained delays in granting journalist visas, a lot has changed since then. In mid-August, we invited the panelists to revisit the conversation at the FCC. 

Pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai (centre), 72, in police custody on 10 August, 2020. PHOTO: VERNON YUEN / AFP Pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai (centre), 72, in police custody on 10 August, 2020. PHOTO: VERNON YUEN / AFP

Before we kick this off, can you introduce yourselves? 

Sharron Fast: I’m a lecturer in media law and the deputy director of the Master of Journalism programme at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). I also teach in the Faculty of Law at HKU. 

Keith Richburg: I’m the director of the JMSC, HKU’s school of journalism. I’m also a longtime FCC member and a board member. 

Antony Dapiran: I’m a writer and lawyer. I’ve also written two books on Hong Kong’s protest movements, including City on Fire, about last year’s events. 

What does the NSL say about journalism? 

SF: If we look at Articles 9 and 10, the law says the Hong Kong government has a duty to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to promote the national security law through the media. That is sounding dangerously like propaganda. It doesn’t mean a free press – it means that the government will ensure that the media gets the coverage ‘right’. 

AD: I’d also highlight Article 54, which has caused grave concern. The article says the government will ‘strengthen the management’ of foreign media, international organisations and NGOs. There’s a great deal of uncertainty over what that will mean. But it is certainly ominous. 

How are you feeling about the law at the moment? 

KR: Some [decisions] have given me more optimism. For example, the law didn’t provide any presumption of bail, but Jimmy Lai was released on bail. Others have made me more pessimistic. Sending about 200 police officers into the Apple Daily newsroom [on 10 August] was a shocking trampling on press freedom. I’ve covered the Middle East and authoritarian governments in Africa, and I don’t recall seeing police search a critical newsroom like that. 

AD: And then lying about it after the fact. They claimed not to have searched news materials when there’s footage of police rifling through journalists’ desks. That’s troubling. 

KR: When the FCC put out a statement criticising the raid at Apple Daily and the arrest of Jimmy Lai, they accused us of ‘smearing’ the national security law. They’re implying that even being critical of the law could itself be a violation. That tramples on free speech. I may have to obey the law, but it is still my right to criticise it. 

Antony Dapiran (left) and Keith Richburg (right) discuss the implications of the national security law at the FCC on 15 August, 2020. PHOTO: BEN MARANS Antony Dapiran (left) and Keith Richburg (right) discuss the implications of the national security law at the FCC on 15 August, 2020. PHOTO: BEN MARANS

August 10 was a sad day for the Hong Kong press. What stood out to you? 

SF: We had many sharp shocks that Monday. Around 7 a.m., Jimmy Lai is being arrested. By 10 a.m., the police are entering Next Digital [the publisher of Apple Daily]. Then quietly, news breaks about the immigration situation – people start noticing changes to foreign visa applications. Then we hear about changes to directorships of broadcast news. It was just layer after layer. These weren’t coincidences – every single thing that happened that day is part of creating an atmosphere of fear. 

KR: Let’s not forget, the week before, it seemed like politicians had their day. The government disqualified [a dozen] politicians and cancelled the elections entirely. 

SF: We have everyone from politicians to video journalists to media executives being targeted… If I look at someone like [freelance journalist and activist] Wilson Li versus [media mogul] Jimmy Lai, it’s clear that this law is an ‘all creatures great and small’ kind of instrument.

AD: It has a calculated chilling effect. I think you’re right – the point they want to make is that anyone is at risk.

KR: I’m speculating a little bit here, but I don’t think their intention is to conduct mass arrests in Hong Kong. With these targeted arrests, they can scare a lot more people. 

You know, the old Chinese saying, sha ji xia hou (殺雞儆猴), which means, ‘You kill the chicken to scare the monkey’. That raid on Apple Daily, disqualifying candidates and picking up young students… that’s just killing a few chickens. But all of us monkeys are thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t want to be like that chicken. Maybe I better fall in line.’ 

How could the law pose problems for journalists? 

KR: Personally, I write a lot of op-eds these days. I think it’s still okay to address what’s happening here and offer my interpretations, but I am going to be more cautious about calling on world powers to do anything. That could be interpreted as ‘inciting foreign intervention’. 

SF: Anything is possible with this law. Let’s talk about Article 20 on secession, which includes participation as part of the offence. But what is participating in secession? It’s undefined, unclear. Does this include interviewing [a pro-democracy or pro-independence activist]? Are you an accessory if you give them a platform? 

KR: We have already seen an increase in self-censorship across some media outlets. And here at the FCC, we do a lot of events and Zoom panels. We have a lot of debates about who to have on, as we have gotten in trouble in the past. 

SF: Yes, and the law is unclear [about what it means to advocate secession]. Normally, under Common Law, you would need to prove intent. But the national security law is crafted to be very purposive, meaning that the purpose of the accused individual is presumed. For example, a person will be assumed to have the intention to advocate secession by displaying a flag imprinted with the phrase ‘HK Independence’. 

What if a reporter obtains documents that could be considered ‘state secrets’? 

KR: Let’s hypothesise: A police officer is upset about police brutality and has some internal documents to prove that the department buried an investigation. The whistleblower passes the documents to a reporter who writes a story. Now, I would imagine the top brass might accuse that reporter of possessing ‘national security documents’ and ‘fomenting unlawful hatred’. What liability would that journalist have? 

SF: I think direct [liability]. You might have to publish it overseas. There are no sunshine laws [freedom of information laws in the US that require federal bodies to disclose information]. And, whereas in the US, you can go after the leaker but not the reporter, that won’t stand here. 

AD: There would also be pressure on the media to reveal the identity of the leaker. Just saying, ‘I can’t reveal my sources’ is going to be a difficult argument. 

Sharron Fast unpacks the law’s vague language at the FCC. PHOTO: BEN MARANS Sharron Fast unpacks the law’s vague language at the FCC. PHOTO: BEN MARANS

How might the government punish ‘rogue’ media? 

KR: I worked in mainland China as a correspondent for The Washington Post [from 2009 to 2013]. They had this idea of collective punishment. For example, I was invited on a government-sponsored trip to Tibet. At the last minute, they said there was no space for me because The Post had written an editorial criticising what was happening in Xinjiang. 

Even though I had nothing to do with it, they said: ‘Yes, but you are The Washington Post’s person in China. So you are responsible.’ So what happens if Nathan Law or Jimmy Lai writes an op-ed that appears in The New York Times or The Washington Post in the US? Since they can’t get to the reporter overseas, would they punish the bureaus here? All we have to go on is how they do it in China. 

AD: True, but even though it is hard to report in China, we still see excellent journalism coming out of the country. 

KR: Absolutely. China is one of the most restrictive places for journalists in the world. It ranks 177 out of 180 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders. But there’s good journalism being done if you look at Caixin, Southern Weekend, Sixth Tone, The New York Times’ Xinjiang papers… 

AD: In Hong Kong, journalists will need to be more careful. They will need to learn from how journalists operate in other countries, like in Thailand, where you can’t criticise the military or the monarchy. 

KR: Even in Myanmar, there’s good reporting. It takes brave journalists, brave editors, brave websites that are still going to print this stuff. At the same time, we need to pay attention and start to learn where the red lines are – and know that they will always be shifting.

Could entrapment become more common? 

SF: The lengths to which authorities will go to in order to ensnare journalists are still unknown. Right now, everyone’s thinking about legal advice, encryption, using Signal – doing everything possible to keep the forensics clean. 

KR: Journalists will figure it out. They have to learn how to navigate the new rules, protect their sources, data and notebooks. We can’t just pretend things are the way they were before. You may have to use burner cell phones, VPNs, remember your interviews instead of taking notes, and assume you’re being surveilled. 

AD: That is a good point. The law has a whole raft of mechanisms that can compel people to provide documents and answer questions. So the way journalists record and safeguard their data is going to be important. 

Do you think press freedom is dead in Hong Kong? 

KR: Press freedom is dead, in terms of being protected by law. That said, I believe press freedom will survive because of the bravery of journalists, who get out there and report. 

SF: There is definitely still a pulse. We have a great new cohort at HKU this year. Our students are extremely interested in reporting here; this attempt to extinguish press freedom and free expression is the biggest story in the world right now. It is the story of their generation. 

AD: And certainly, I was heartened by the public’s reaction to Apple Daily and all the outpouring of support they’ve seen since the arrests and newsroom raid. That shows how important press freedom is to the people of Hong Kong. 

Read the law in full here.

Speaking Up for Press Freedom in Hong Kong

FCC First Vice President and Press Freedom Committee co-convener Eric Wishart revisits the club’s core mission – and the many ways in which it has fought for unfettered, independent journalism since its founding.

Ming Pao’s Lai Chun Kit won the People’s Choice Photo Award at the Human Rights Press Awards 2020 for his shot, “Mattress Shield”, which was taken during clashes with police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November 2019. Ming Pao’s Lai Chun Kit won the People’s Choice Photo Award at the Human Rights Press Awards 2020 for his shot, “Mattress Shield”, which was taken during clashes with police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November 2019.

Hong Kong has been through turbulent times over the past year with the protests and unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently, the imposition of the national security law. The club has witnessed many seismic events since it was founded in China in 1943 and subsequently moved to Hong Kong after the establishment of the PRC in 1949.

From a handful of foreign correspondents that established our foothold in Hong Kong, the FCC has evolved to become one of the most famous and prestigious press clubs in the world, with a large and diverse membership. The FCC is a vibrant place to meet, share views and bring guests. As we have seen over the past year, it serves as a welcoming oasis in troubled times.

Riot police pepper spray a group of journalists on 1 July, 2020. PHOTO: DALE DE LA REY / AFP Riot police pepper spray a group of journalists on 1 July, 2020. PHOTO: DALE DE LA REY / AFP

It is also important that all members – journalists and non-journalists alike – understand that the defence of press freedom is fundamental to the club’s existence. As the FCC site asserts:

“The club’s core mission is to promote and facilitate journalism of the highest standard, and to promote press freedom across the region.”

Our press freedom actions take a number of forms. For two decades, we have jointly organised and sponsored the Human Rights Press Awards, recognising journalists in Hong Kong and throughout the region for fearless and distinguished reporting. Often focusing on press freedom or human rights themes, our Wall exhibits in the Main Bar showcase the best in photojournalism.

Our speaker events often involve press freedom issues. Last year we held a series of briefings, which we opened up to the community, to help journalists deal with the multiple challenges of covering the protests. When the government adopted the national security law, we held a panel discussion with experts on the potential implications of the law for journalists and press freedom.

We mark World Press Freedom Day and hold shows of solidarity after attacks on journalistic freedom, such as the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015.

Engagement is important, and over the past year, we have met representatives of the Hong Kong government, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Hong Kong Police Force. Dialogue remains essential.

The most powerful weapon journalists and defenders of press freedom have at their disposal is the power to shine a light on abuses and threats to the unfettered reporting of the news, which should be conducted without fear or favour.

Silence only encourages those who would turn the free press into a compliant tool and create an environment where journalists work in fear of losing their accreditation, work visas, freedom of movement, or in extreme cases, their lives. Keeping your head down, not “rocking the boat” and hoping things will get better never works when faced with enemies of press freedom.  

At the FCC, the Press Freedom Committee is responsible for dealing with the club’s response to threats against journalists and the media, which includes our public statements and letters to the appropriate authorities. It comprises about a dozen members – all working journalists with a wide range of experience.

The FCC hosted a lunch panel on the protests and press freedom on 8 August, 2019. PHOTO: FCC The FCC hosted a lunch panel on the protests and press freedom on 8 August, 2019. PHOTO: FCC

It represents members of the local and international media and includes journalists at the start of their careers as well as experienced correspondents who have faced a range of press freedom challenges, including in war zones and dealing with dictatorial regimes.

A large number of journalists at the club and in Hong Kong have confronted risks to press freedom, from facing physical threats to vicious online trolling. They have faced up to dictators and authoritarianism and seen colleagues imprisoned, kidnapped and killed.

The committee focuses on challenges to press freedom in Hong Kong, although it will occasionally take up high-profile cases such as the jailing of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar, expulsions of journalists from China, and the jail sentence against Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa in the Philippines. When it comes to cases outside of Hong Kong taken up by the committee, there is often an FCC connection.

The Press Freedom Committee responds to sudden events such as physical assaults or arrests of journalists in Hong Kong, as well as broader issues, such as the cumulative effect of delays in granting visas to correspondents.

The FCC takes a stand for press freedom on 18 September, 2019. PHOTO: NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP The FCC takes a stand for press freedom on 18 September, 2019. PHOTO: NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

In practical terms, once the committee has decided to act on an issue, a member is designated to write a draft that is then circulated for discussion to the rest of the committee. The process can take a few hours or longer, depending on its complexity. Once the conveners and president sign off on the final version, it is posted on the site, shared on social media and sent to the Board of Governors.

It is important that the club speaks with its own voice – we post statements from other press freedom groups on the FCC site, such as the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute.

However, we limit our social media posts to our own statements, and we avoid taking part in joint statements. We believe that the club should maintain its independence and be answerable solely for its own actions.

Why should the FCC speak up? The best defence of press freedom is to expose abuses and threats, engage with the relevant authorities when necessary, and respect the core mission that was entrusted to us by the founders of the club. Silence is not an option.

 

Are you blue or are you yellow? The colours dividing Hong Kong

Politics took on a different hue this year and the colour of someone’s loyalty determined where they ate, met and shopped. Photographer May James and student journalist Lauren F. Lau report

Restaurant’s clear ‘blue’ message to customers Restaurant’s clear ‘blue’ message to customers

Hong Kong has always been a vibrant city, the “Pearl of the East” which lures many. But two decades on from the 1997 handover and it seems like Hong Kong’s inner glow has dimmed.

The political engagement of Hongkongers has taken a turn since June 2019. Long gone are mild protests with general demands; a new era of strong-willed sentiment has shaken the people. The two sides are more clear-cut than ever, and colour-coded.

In the yellow camp are the pro-democracy supporters. They were strongly against a proposed extradition bill to China, now withdrawn but which caused social uproar last summer, and oppose being ruled from Beijing. The blue camp is pro-government, pro-police and pro-Beijing.

Café owner in blue T-shirt with ‘blue’ souvenirs for sale Café owner in blue T-shirt with ‘blue’ souvenirs for sale
‘Blue’ customers eat between COVID-19 dividers filled with messages of support for Hong Kong police ‘Blue’ customers eat between COVID-19 dividers filled with messages of support for Hong Kong police

Yellow and blue are essentially the new identity politics of Hong Kong. There is no longer a space for those that don’t pick a side, even though historically politics was never that important to Hongkongers.

Being the international financial centre it is, the money-driven people of Hong Kong used to seek convenience and efficiency in almost every aspect in life.

Now, it has all changed. Fundamentally, the people of Hong Kong have decided to hold onto what matters – their values and virtues. Justice must prevail, for both sides.

The crack has gone beyond the point of return. “Construction projects” were widely supported in the past year, when furious front-liners shattered glass panes and destroyed the premises of many businesses that expressed support for the government.

This behaviour created the concept of the “yellow economic circle” –  people support the pro-democracy camp by spending money only on businesses that share their politics. Mobile apps now help people locate where “yellow” restaurants and shops are. Supporters have researched all sorts of businesses, including coffee shops, beauty brands and supermarkets, naming those that should be patronised.

The blue camp has created similar platforms to promote businesses. The new pro-establishment Hong Kong Coalition is setting up a website to identify businesses that need an economic boost after the double blow from citywide protests last year and the pandemic.

The tensions created from the protest have torn society apart, and personal relationships have not been spared. Marriages, families and friendships have been traumatised. Threats to kick family members out of the household have become common insults at the dinner table. One year later, these shattered bonds are breaking the city’s heart.

FCC and Wall Committee member May James has been a freelance photographer since 2016. She documented the Hong Kong protests last year, working for Hong Kong Free Press, AFP, Bloomberg Asia and many other titles.

Lauren F. Lau was born and raised in Hong Kong and is a journalism student at HKU. She has written for SCMP and The Standard and is currently a reporter at iCable News, HKIBC.

Cake decorated with the pro-democracy chant of ‘Hong Kong Add Oil’ Cake decorated with the pro-democracy chant of ‘Hong Kong Add Oil’
Torn apart: This young ‘yellow’ medic, aged 18, comes from a ‘blue’ family who are threatening to ‘kick him out’ of their home Torn apart: This young ‘yellow’ medic, aged 18, comes from a ‘blue’ family who are threatening to ‘kick him out’ of their home
A cafe artist drawing “Hong Kong Add oil” on a chocolate drink at a pro-democracy “know as Yellow” cafe A cafe artist drawing “Hong Kong Add oil” on a chocolate drink at a pro-democracy “know as Yellow” cafe
A ‘yellow’ online protest game A ‘yellow’ online protest game

Coronavirus: Life in Hubei during lockdown

A virus that began in China is now sweeping the world. Streets are emptied as countries go into lockdown and travel is grinding to a halt. The death toll from coronavirus, or COVID-19, has passed 53,000 and the number of cases had just gone over a million at the time of going to press. The Correspondent looks at a pandemic that is changing life everywhere.

‘Birds were taking over the streets, and I wondered what they would think of this sudden retreat of bothersome humans’

Like millions of Chinese, Robert Hu and his parents travelled to see their elderly relatives in Hubei province for Chinese New Year. Suddenly he was in lockdown for more than two months. They made it home to Shenzhen just as we were going to press. Robert is now considering journalism graduate school options

This was supposed to be another routine family reunion during Chinese New Year in Yichang, Hubei, my hometown famous for its rivers, mountains and fried carrot dumplings. I had travelled there with my parents from Shenzhen, where we now live. Everything should have followed the same script as for generations before me. Instead, the Year of the Rat started with anything but a normal routine, for almost everyone that I know.

I’m not totally unfamiliar with the notion of fear and uncertainty. From social unrests in Hong Kong, to the deadly conflicts in Jerusalem – where I was on a study abroad programme on conflict resolution – I have several times voluntarily got myself into the midst of tumultuous moments to observe and document.

But nothing could fully prepare me for what happened right here in my birthplace, even though I had been following the news of a possible outbreak since the end of December. From January 20, when a civilian expert finally admitted that what is now known as COVID-19 is indeed infectious among humans, the situation went into freefall in front of our eyes.

All shops ran out of masks on January 22. I saw a man lose his composure, yelling on the phone about the seriousness of the situation according to “directives from the central government” on a near-empty street, and by January 25 everything stopped in Yichang, including any chance of making my way back to Shenzhen.

Compared with this outbreak, the peak of an epidemic called fear came much earlier. On the eve of January 25, the far from merry first day of New Year and the night before my scheduled flight, I felt a sudden chill. The timing was uncanny. At the time we were not informed of the planned cancellation of all flights out of Yichang. Although we had by then realised there was a strong possibility of that eventuality, we still maintained hope that we would be able to get out.

My parents and I were staying in our Yichang apartment as usual when we visited our elderly relatives, and the possibility of me infecting them plus the uncertainty of this virus filled me with dread. There was even a moment when the terrible thought that I wouldn’t make it out of this situation wormed its way into my mind. That night was the most difficult time during this whole period. Compared with this outbreak, the peak of an epidemic called fear came much earlier.

‘Near every entrance to residential compounds there was a blue tent labelled as “disaster relief”, a surreal scene that I never would have imagined happening so close to home.’ ‘Near every entrance to residential compounds there was a blue tent labelled as “disaster relief”, a surreal scene that I never would have imagined happening so close to home.’

When you are immersed in fear, you will try anything to stay afloat. I began to comfort myself with logic; for example, the chance of us contracting the disease and getting seriously ill was low. After all, Yichang is hundreds of kilometres away from the epicentre of Wuhan, and we were not aware of having close contact with anyone who came from there.

Despite the lockdown, and increasingly draconian measures that were slowly but surely tightening, we insisted on venturing out of our residential compound every day to get some fresh air. In the early days we could still find someone on the street taking their daily walk or jogging alongside the riverbank. A few days later, all non-essential personnel in Hubei province were confined to their homes in a mandatory quarantine.

Our time of total confinement began.

Fortunately, all of us tried to make the best of our situation, and often joked away the tension and stress that lingered between us. We found that doing family activities such as singing and pep talks helped. Not everyone was lucky to have such company. There were many trapped in Yichang without a place to stay, quickly running out of supplies and with no one to turn to. Social media were full of chat groups and desperate pleas asking for assistance for supplies or a way out of the province. I was in one group where many did not have a stable income to weather the storm.

I found it was crucial to find simple pleasures and focus on positive things that happened around me. Without mass transport and factories in operation, the usually smog-thick sky became clearer. Birds were taking over the streets, and I wondered what they would think of this sudden retreat of bothersome humans. One of them would land outside my window every day, linger for a few seconds and then freely fly away with a stick in its mouth. It reminded me that in nature, everything was carrying on as if nothing had happened.

‘By March 20, armies of kites were in the skies. Mine eventually broke free, but I didn’t mind one bit.’ ‘By March 20, armies of kites were in the skies. Mine eventually broke free, but I didn’t mind one bit.’

Soon, we created a daily routine in our confinement, fear gradually subsided, and our basic needs were being better addressed by government-sponsored deliveries and the apparent improvement of the official statistics. It is true what they say – given time we are capable of adapting in adverse situations.

After nearly a month, outdoors seemed less attractive than before. We nonetheless were excited to get out of the main gate, only to find a largely deserted city criss-crossed by barricades of various kinds serving as improvised checkpoints everywhere. Near every entrance to residential compounds there was a blue tent labelled as “disaster relief”, a surreal scene that I never would have imagined happening so close to home.

Gradually some shops, especially barber shops, began to open in secret. By March 20, armies of kites were in the skies. Mine eventually broke free, but I didn’t mind one bit.

At the time of writing this, Hubei is gradually returning to normal on all levels. Travelling outside the province is still restricted, but this is relaxing daily. Since early March, the situation outside China has been rapidly deteriorating. As I find countries are adopting some of the draconian methods I thought would never happen outside China, I have become less critical about our earlier efforts to contain the disease.

For anyone who is experiencing what we have been through, I would say this: The situation will get much worse before it gets better in the coming months. But rest assured, if we all do our bit, everything is going to be fine.

Hong Kong Protests: Five journalism students share how unrest has changed their lives

The Hong Kong Protests have impacted the city and its people for months. Five journalism students from the University of Hong Kong share what the unrest has revealed to them and how their lives have been changed.

Hongkonger Michelle Wong is in her fourth year studying English and translation, with journalism and media studies, at The University of Hong Kong.

The practicalities of our future have driven a wedge between my parents. For months, my mother has been talking about how we cannot live in Hong Kong anymore. She talks of emigration and buying a place elsewhere. The catch – we don’t have the money to move anywhere.

Not anywhere overseas like Malaysia, where my dad, the only breadwinner at home, would not be able to open up a business again. He is approaching 60 and he knows absolutely no one and nothing about the rules and regulations of conducting business elsewhere. Not even anywhere in Guangzhou, where we would need to make a full payment to purchase a flat as we are not local residents and could not borrow from any mainland banks.

The protests are putting families under enormous stress The protests are putting families under enormous stress

Yet my mother mentions it more and more often as the protests get increasingly violent. For the past few months, my mother has gone from being mildly irritated by destruction at the Legislative Council to watching YouTubers analysing the wrongdoings and ridiculousness of the “rioters” every day.

“I never knew Hong Kong people can be this stupid,” she said. “The government is no good either. This has been going on for nearly half a year and they still haven’t put a stop to the violence and destruction.”

Despite my mother’s increasingly radical views, political stance is not really an issue in my family. My dad and I were both supporters of the protest when it started, until the demonstrations turned from blocking roads to throwing Molotov cocktails and beating people because they tried to take a photo. At this point I’ve seen violence on both the police and the protesters’ sides, and I can only hope that physical confrontations on the streets will stop so that investigations and discussions can start.

Although everyone in my family finds my mother’s views too extreme and one-sided most of the time, we would usually not counter her points. Home, after all, is a place not for sense but for sensibility.

The problem came as she started watching mainland property ads aimed at Hongkongers and YouTubers talking about how to buy property in the mainland. She dragged my dad to one of those property talks. My dad came back, unusually quiet and tired, with HK$800 less – the host of the free talk said they would only bring you on tours of these flats if you join their information sessions, which cost HK$800.

Only when my mum was showering did he start talking. “The way your mum was looking at me,” my dad said, “I felt like dinner would not be waiting for me at home in the foreseeable future if I didn’t pay up then and there.”

He had to pay despite being highly sceptical of the talk, the organisation, the sessions and the tours. We have all heard of horror stories of scams that left Hongkongers in mounting debt after they have bought non-existent flats in the mainland through deceitful middlemen. “I am dying here,” he said, “it is simply impossible.” He swore a couple of times. I listened to his complaints and remained silent.

The barricaded entrance of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus The barricaded entrance of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus

But my mum has her reasons. Living in Sha Tin Central, we have seen protesters running into the malls right below our building and onto our podium to throw our rubbish bins down onto the heads of armed policemen. We have watched through closed windows as black-clad people run for cover when rounds of tear gas are fired. All our CCTVs on the podium are destroyed and we need to pay for new ones. We have been cut off for at least three days as Sha Tin station was closed and no buses could come in because the Tolo Highway was blocked.

My dad could not go to work for four days. I was woken up by police sirens for three days in a row. My brother and I both have our classes suspended for the rest of this semester. My brother, who is studying at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, was unsure if his campus would be ready for class by the start of the next semester, while my dad, a Polytechnic graduate, seethes at the destruction. As for my mum, she takes all this to heart. Plus, she hates the confinement. “It’s one thing for me to stay at home voluntarily,” she said, “it’s another when I am forced to stay home because of this madness. These people are downright despicable!”

The reputation of my generation is tarnished in the mainland, where the big market lies. As a fourth-year student majoring in English Studies and Translation, I am graduating this coming year, yet I have no idea if I will be able to find any jobs in this climate. I was planning to apply for a government job as an official language officer this year, but the recruitment hasn’t been announced and I fear it won’t be this year. I don’t know if any global corporations would be hiring translators from Hong Kong. Translators are mostly hired to facilitate business between mainland Chinese and foreigners, yet both mainland companies and foreign companies doing business in the mainland might be hesitant to take fresh local graduates like me.

Leaving feels like escaping and abandoning my beloved home. Yet I do fear for the future – both for Hong Kong and myself.

As a person born and raised in Hong Kong, of course I want to stay here as long as I can. I see the encroachment of our autonomy in Hong Kong. I see the wish and need to fight for democracy. Leaving feels like escaping and abandoning my beloved home. Yet I do fear for the future – both for Hong Kong and myself. No one can say for certain what China would do after the protest blows over. Rolling back the freedom of speech? Pushing to implement Article 23 of Basic Law, which makes treason, secession, sedition and subversion chargeable offences? More interference in our judicial system by interpreting the Basic Law? Would I still be able to live here then? Would I still be able to live here when I have no job? Would I be able to make a living elsewhere?

My mum is also partly driven by her friends and family. Everyone has a second resort, in case the situation worsens. My mum wants one for us, too. “Look at the news,” my mum said to me on more than one occasion, “How can you still say that you can live in Hong Kong? Your dad is the only one who does nothing in response.”

Sitting at the dinner table, we were all eating while watching television as usual. I watched my mum talking too much and my dad staying too silent. I escaped to my room not long after dinner but kept an ear open. A comedy is on, yet the only laughter I hear is from the television. Silence seems to amplify when accompanied by canned laughter. How long is this going to last? I pray that the stress on each of our shoulders will not cause a tear in my family that no protest can mend.

It’s a tough decision to make between India and Hong Kong

Joy Pamnani is a journalism and finance student at The University of Hong Kong and says “I love storytelling and hope to inspire with the stories I tell.”

It was the first time in years I’d had a crush that wasn’t a celebrity. And this time, it just felt right. He’d come to Hong Kong to work as a research assistant for the second time. He was smart, funny, handsome and mature. India wasn’t too far and he liked Hong Kong for his career. I just knew a long-distance relationship would be worth the wait because we really liked each other and both dreamed of a future in Hong Kong together.

Until the protests happened.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve always considered myself a third culture kid, or TCK. I can’t choose between my Indian and Hong Kong side but I embrace the fact that in different aspects of my life, one dominates another. With food, nothing changes my love for dim sum and cheung fan. On the movies and music side, I like Hollywood and Bollywood.

For years I’ve liked fusion in my identity.

But as things have started to shake up in Hong Kong, I’m starting to question whether the protests could be affecting my identity and awakening this inner Indian side that’s been silent all these years. Would I have to relocate?

My close friends were beginning to notice changes about me. The topic of relocation would come up during conversations with my TCK friends. We also reflected on our identities in response to recent riots. Some of those friends sensed confusion. Others patriotism towards Hong Kong.

However, a few, like me, sensed exclusion. The protests made them feel like outsiders in a city that was their home. They started to shift to the other culture in their identity that was not Hong Kong.

These thoughts arose when I scrolled past my playlists for the past three months. They had been full-on Bollywood. As I was watching the sunset one evening, I realised I wasn’t paying attention to the sunset. I was listening to slow songs by the soulful Indian artist Arijit Singh and looking up the meaning behind the lyrics to learn new words in Hindi.

If music wasn’t enough, my Netflix recommendations were suddenly coming back as Bollywood movies. But these days I was challenging myself to watch content without subtitles and learn new words.

Members of the South Asian community hand out bottles of water to people taking part in a pro-democracy march outside Chungking Mansions Members of the South Asian community hand out bottles of water to people taking part in a
pro-democracy march outside Chungking Mansions

Although it’s not the easiest or most entertaining subject, Cantonese has always been my priority. But I was beginning to question my language priorities. I wanted to improve my Hindi, and I didn’t see Cantonese as necessary if I wasn’t going to stay here.

I was suddenly considering Indian food, too – both for myself and meals with friends. My best friend and I like to find affordable options in central business districts. And suddenly, Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s ultimate go-to hotspot for Indians, topped the list. Was I suddenly an Indian food ambassador? Or was there a part of me that believed these Indian meals might just be a daily thing if I left Hong Kong, and it was better to get used to it now than complain about it later?

It came to a point where I expanded my career horizons. My summer internship taught me a newsroom was one of the most depressing places to be in these times of protests and I simply couldn’t write stories about my home being burned to the ground.

I’ve still got at least a year till graduation. Both a silent one watching where the situation in Hong Kong heads, and an anxious one getting myself ready to move to India should the tables turn.

As I reflected on why I was drawn to journalism school in the first place, my answer was storytelling – something I could do anywhere. If I end up in India, Bollywood has some pretty great writers too.

I tossed and turned one night as these thoughts began to dawn on me. Were these just feelings of curiosity in a relationship with a guy living in India? Or was I running away from my Hongkonger side because of political turmoil?

India wouldn’t be perfect, but in fact a step back for me. I’d miss everything from the convenience of the world’s best public transport system to the simple efficiencies of opening a bank account. My boyfriend had been working so hard to graduate and pursue a career in a world-class city. If I moved back to India, would he be able to pursue his dream?

Besides, I now consider Hong Kong to be my home, a city where 90 percent of the people don’t look like me. If I moved to India, 90 percent of the people would look like me. But would it feel like home? And how long would it take to have the heart to call India “my true home”?

Being the TCK that likes to be rooted in one place, it’s a tough decision to make between India and Hong Kong. I’ve still got at least a year till graduation. Both a silent one watching where the situation in Hong Kong heads, and an anxious one getting myself ready to move to India should the tables turn.

An escape to Shenzhen

Lucy Zhang is a Master’s student in journalism at The University of Hong Kong and hopes to contribute to a peaceful society with her skills.

I used to spend November 11, the Chinese Singles Day, shopping online with my college friends. But my year in the University of Hong Kong gave me a whole new experience when protesters shut down the MTR station, blocked elevators and caused the suspension of all classes that week.

I did get the alert the day before that there would be disturbances on our way to school the next morning, so I got up early at 7:30am to go to campus. Students in WeChat groups were already sharing information about which station exit was closed and which road was still accessible.

“Does anyone know which way is clear?”

“Go to the West Gate and climb over the roadblocks set by cockroaches.”

“A lot of protesters in campus, be safe.”

Scrolling messages while I finally reached an elevator that still worked, I saw dozens of protesters with masks on, hiding their faces and facial expressions, moving desks and chairs to block the students.

Fortunately, I strode over the barricades without being stopped, but I could see them trying to build taller roadblocks after I’d got through. I reached my classroom with other classmates successfully, only to be emailed about the suspension of all classes that day.

Mixed feelings of disappointment and unease came to me. What about the next time? What if they keep doing this until next semester? The school will keep cancelling classes? Who is going to protect our right to study?

Radical protesters formed small groups at 7am to disrupt citywide traffic and force shop closures, missed work attendance and class boycotts. The rush-hour disruption affected every citizens’ daily life and whoever is responsible is starting to become a pain in the butt.

But not everyone believes people’s normal lives can be sacrificed for the “greater good”. Forcing people to take sides by disrupting their daily lives could be the opposite of freedom and democracy.

Struggling to find my way back with other classmates, we found most roads blocked by protesters. After a desperate 30-minute tour around campus, we finally found a stair that was not completely blocked. A young boy was pulling a shelf to the stair and we sneaked through the tiny little gap just in time.

Most of my classmates stayed at home that day. At 6:10pm, the Senior Management Team announced that all classes at HKU on Tuesday, November 12, would be cancelled. Intense discussions burst out in WeChat groups.

“We have to raise our own voice, don’t let the world receive only the voice from them.”

“We didn’t pay the tuition fee and come here to be deprived of the right to school.”

Firstly, online teaching is less efficient than face-to-face teaching and it is harder to engage with professors. Secondly, time would be wasted if students stayed in Hong Kong with no classes to attend.

Nevertheless, many were still patiently waiting for school to deal with the circumstances and resume classes soon. But protesters heightened the tension by turning CUHK into a makeshift manufacturing base for petrol bombs and setting the campus on fire on the following day.

Some students started to plan going to Shenzhen or flying home. Students who wished to leave Hong Kong were forming groups to take taxis, buses or the MTR together so they could look after each other. My parents suggested I should stay inside, but I’m tired of hiding in my small apartment and cooking by myself, so I left Hong Kong for Shenzhen by the Express Rail.

For the rest of the day, I ate my fill of braised goose and Chaoshan beef hotpot. The waiters were polite and smiling. I didn’t worry about speaking Mandarin in the street and being frowned upon by others. Hong Kong is great in many ways, but it never feels like home.

I was staying at a free hotel provided by Shenzhen Youth Community under the Communist Youth League. When I got there, I saw a dozen students with their suitcases in the lobby. About 130 students who left Hong Kong were staying in that hotel on Wednesday night.

At 4pm on November 14 we got the message that classes on the Main Campus would be suspended for the rest of the semester and teaching and learning would be accessible online. This means a lot of things.

Firstly, online teaching is less efficient than face-to-face teaching and it is harder to engage with professors. Secondly, time would be wasted if students stayed in Hong Kong with no classes to attend. But if they leave, high rents and tuition fees still need to be paid. Thirdly, for students who wish to do experiments with equipment or study at campus, school facilities and public services in campus are disrupted.

Angry at this decision, many students formed a group to write to school heads to raise the voice from mainland students. Ian Holliday, vice-president of HKU, responded: “We took the decision … very reluctantly. Fortunately, we only have two weeks left in the semester, so the impact on student learning should not be too great.”

For the protesters, it could be a victory; for us, it is the end of the semester with no school and more self-learning, and a feeling of losing control over our own lives.

‘Sometimes, outsiders can be the best witnesses’

Yang Ziyu, a Master of Journalism student at The University of Hong Kong, was born in Zhejiang Province and interned at Sixth Tone and the Shanghai Center of Photography.

Anybody who is still on campus – you should be leaving now.” I was never a fan of the on-screen banners that come with messaging apps, but I started to keep notifications on, just in case. After reading a message on WeChat, however, I thought for a while, and buried myself into work again.

It was November 13, 2019, the third day of a citywide strike, and the first day that I finally had the chance to grab the popular seat that I never got to try before: a cosy, golden grandfather chair facing the tranquil sea view. There were only a few people still at Chi Wah, the main learning commons at The University of Hong Kong (HKU), which was usually rather packed. I could hear the droning siren of police cars from a distance, as well as the sounds of people flipping over papers or rapidly zipping up bags. They were leaving.

I chose to stay.

As a mainlander, I came to HKU to study journalism, in hope of polishing my skills in a media environment where news is less heavily censored. Although I am not a devotee of collectivism in any form, I was slightly astounded in September when student protesters marched on campus, and shouted themselves hoarse for the first time. “CCP go to hell!” they growled with barely controlled fury, time and again. I should have taken the bitter hatred more seriously, but I held the same view as most people at that time: this civil unrest wouldn’t last too long.

One weekend in November, I gave myself a break by not reading any local news for two days. On the Monday, I woke up to the news of a citywide strike. It is rare to receive an email from school at 9am, but that morning I got five, some in full capitals and all saying, “Stay safe.”

My roommates and I went out on the street, and we could feel the smell of burning rubber in the air. We tried several paths to enter the campus, only to find that they were either blocked, vandalised or both.

We kept moving until we reached the entrance to the campus and were finally stopped by the protesters. “No school today!” they exclaimed repeatedly behind the barricades.

“Why do you want to go to school so badly?” shouted one protester, angrily throwing a metal bucket to the ground. “Because it is my right to education!” a student replied indignantly. She tried to squeeze past a narrow gap. Realising the lack of common ground, they soon reached a standoff.

There are certain sounds that you become more and more familiar with every day. The sound of trash bins and barricades of all kinds being thrown on the road, and the noise of heavy metal poles scratching the ground, though it feels as if they are scrubbing your nerves instead. But one day, you get used to all of them. You stop reacting to what might be regarded as “abnormality”. Frequently, I heard this accusation from both sides: you don’t understand love. While protesters would say they only conduct violence and vandalism out of their deep love for Hong Kong, anti-violence citizens condemn them for turning the city into a loveless place.

For the first time, I realised how yawning a gap love can create among people.

I can still remember the night before the anti-mask law came into effect in October, a demonstrator glared at me and shouted, “Give back my freedom!” as I was talking in Mandarin on my phone. Behind him, Maxim’s Cakes, (of which the founder’s daughter had made public anti-protest remarks) was being daubed with graffiti and damaged.

After classes were suspended in most Hong Kong universities, many students from the mainland fled to Shenzhen as a temporary refuge. What the mainstream media hasn’t covered much is that there are also many who chose to stay.

But besides that, my encounters with Hongkongers, protesters and non-protesters alike, have been rather smooth. I came back to campus on a Saturday night, shortly after the police left. The barricades in front of all entrances were piled up even higher. I asked the protesters who guarded the gate if I could enter for work. They helped me carry my backpack and climb over the shaky roadblocks that were almost the same height as me. “Take care,” was the last thing they said to me.

Every time I spoke with protesters, I could see the expression of surprise on their face. And occasionally, that was how I felt as well. As we peeled the political labels off one another, and engaged in simple communication, the hatred, fear and defence mechanisms dissipated.

After classes were suspended in most Hong Kong universities, many students from the mainland fled to Shenzhen as a temporary refuge. What the mainstream media hasn’t covered much is that there are also many who chose to stay. As a mainlander who has her own doubts towards Beijing and yet is firmly against violence, I – as one of them – found myself an outsider on both sides. But mainland Chinese “drifters” who are reluctant to leave have a role in the whole movement. Sometimes, outsiders can be the best witnesses.

Goodbye, Hong Kong

Diego Mendoza is a journalism student at George Washington University in Washington DC. He studied at The University of Hong Kong last semester.

Dear Hong Kong,

I could tell everyone back home that it was the rows of shimmering neon signs ornamenting the streets of Mong Kok, or the sweet aromas of freshly baked char siu bao pervading the humid air. Perhaps I’ll say that it was the crisp taste of Tsingtao beer on top of roaring cascades after a hike through the jungles of the New Territories.

But that would be a lie.

What made me fall for you were brilliant flames on top of barricades of trash cans; the looks of intimate camaraderie among black-masked strangers. It was hearing thousands of voices chorusing Do You Hear the People Sing? along Victoria Harbour. It was even the sting of tear gas filling my lungs as I sprinted through a sea of glued-down bricks.

The brutality between protesters and police – the marches, the MTR arson and Molotov cocktail explosions that so many exchange students fled from – is precisely what stole my heart.

Sure, as an aspiring journalist I am someone who naturally runs towards mayhem. But more importantly, the people’s political fervour lit a spark within me to become a greater advocate of democracy – you have shown me what it means to be a steward of liberty and justice for all.

Frankly speaking, I initially overlooked your glamour. Having learned Mandarin for more than a decade, and having lived in Shanghai earlier this year, I reckoned my time in Asia was over; I was yearning for some new, flavourful affair. But your programme price was incomparable, and after reading about the curriculum at university, I elected to give you a chance.

When the protests began in June, I could have followed my family and friends’ advice to study abroad somewhere else. After all, if something happened, I was at risk of losing credit for the semester.

I was once afraid to be so openly political – I worried about straining relationships with others or being perceived as too biased in my writing. But my time with you has shown me that cowering behind a wall of oppression only allows the tyrants to build that wall higher.

But when life presents you with unparalleled opportunities, you take them. The trepidation of losing classes was tangible, but the loss of not fully understanding the intricate details of a revolution of our times was terrifying. And so, it became my goal to apprehend your wrath towards authority.

After visiting Lantau Island one day, my friends and I discovered that the airport uprisings had shut down the MTR service; the only way back to our apartments was squatting on the 12-inch-wide aisle of an overcrowded bus slugging through stand-still traffic.

“Wouldn’t it have been easier for you to ride the subway home, instead of trying to study right now?” I asked a 20-something student, her eyes glancing towards me as she looked up from her law textbook.

“I could have got more studying in, but then you wouldn’t have been here talking to me,” she bluntly replied. “Now you and your foreigner friends know what’s going on here. If we don’t cause havoc, Hong Kong as we know it will die.”

We may live thousands of miles apart, but our stories are not much different. Living in the United States, I am too familiar with stories of police officers shooting innocent black men. I am too aware of an unresponsive, distant government that slowly chips away our democratic values.

Where our stories diverge is in the means by which we express our dissatisfaction. The violence and anger I witnessed from your people forced me to weigh my ethical morals against my political values.

Waking up to the news of one protester being shot, only to see the video of his allies first beating a riot officer, had me question the claims from local classmates that the police were the only instigators. And the calls to the police officer that followed – protesters telling him they’d rape his daughter, kill his wife, appalled my soul.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand the innate fatal feedback loop that drives your revolution. Yes, there is upright fake news of police burying bodies at sea and pushing protesters from bridges that angers your people. But as a journalist, I also know that without the arson and vandalism yielded from this fury, the outside world would never hear about your battle against tyranny from a lack of coverage.

I didn’t want to leave you, but under pressure from my parents and home university, I had to leave earlier than planned. Returning home, I am now more inspired than ever to join protests and rallies against a government interfering with our democratic rights.

I was once afraid to be so openly political – I worried about straining relationships with others or being perceived as too biased in my writing. But my time with you has shown me that cowering behind a wall of oppression only allows the tyrants to build that wall higher. The people of Hong Kong have shown me how to tear down that wall brick by brick.

Thank you for your time, Hong Kong, for your everlasting mark on me. With your memories, I know that it will never be “goodbye”, but rather “see you later”.

Sincerely,

Diego Mendoza

‘Parachute journalists’ and the fixers who break their fall

by Eric Cheung

Since June, large numbers of foreign correspondents, producers, and filmmakers have flocked to cover the ongoing turbulent events in Hong Kong on the ground.

Known as “parachute journalism”, newsrooms deploying reporters to cover events of which they have little knowledge is hardly new. However, critics say this approach gives rise to reports that are superficial or misleading. In particular, foreign journalists may have to rely on official sources for information, which may be biased.

In June, the Hong Kong story presented a challenge for overseas media without a base here, or locally based foreign journalists who do not usually report on the city. International interest in Hong Kong had dwindled since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, so there was an urgent need to understand why a significant portion of the population opposed the extradition bill.

To bridge the knowledge gap, many turned to local freelancers. Within five days of June 9, I had received emails from producers based in Canada, Australia, Britain, and France, asking to schedule interviews on why the bill was such a big deal, or seeking help in arranging a reporting trip here.

At first, most foreign media reports explained the controversies surrounding the extradition bill, and why many were afraid of the new law. However, not many stories contextualised the fear of Beijing’s growing influence over the city. Several high-profile cases in recent years, including the disqualification of elected officials, the alleged abduction of the Causeway Bay booksellers, and the jailing of political activists, were catalysts for the massive turnout.

As the movement went on, there were more analysis pieces. Some stories examined the movement from a socio-economic view, explaining the high housing prices and limited social mobility felt by the young generation. Other articles looked at the role of protest art and how Chinese social media users responded to the protests.

The flood of content was available partly because protesters made an effort to translate material and reach out to an international audience. For example, some volunteers set up Telegram channels to publish instant updates on the ground in English, keeping reporters informed of what was happening on the frontlines. Some users of the LIHKG forum, available only in Cantonese, translated viral threads into English. The Kwan Kung Temple, another Telegram channel set up by protesters, also assisted journalists in pairing up with interviewees.

However, critics of parachute journalism found examples where reports published by overseas media showed a lack of understanding.

One was when foreign media said protesters scored “a big win” when Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the extradition bill’s withdrawal following months of protests. The focus of the movement had already shifted to demands for accountability and democracy and the bill’s withdrawal was not enough to satisfy public demands. Some Hong Kong social media platforms criticised journalists for not understanding this.

Working as a fixer is not an easy job. In my experience, the job requires knowledge of the city’s politics, having the right contacts, and the ability to explain complicated details simply.

Similarly, in December Chinese president Xi Jinping travelled to Macau and praised the city for its success during its 20th anniversary of the handover. Some stories attempted to compare Macau with neighbouring Hong Kong, pointing out Macau has been more “loyal” to Beijing because its residents valued economic order. This missed crucial historical context: Macau came under the firm control of China after riots in December 1967, when the Portuguese government essentially gave in to pro-Beijing trade unions. This was in stark contrast with Hong Kong, where riots orchestrated by leftist groups alienated the general public. The different outcomes have played a role in shaping the two societies today.

Working as a fixer is not an easy job. In my experience, the job requires knowledge of the city’s politics, having the right contacts, and the ability to explain complicated details simply. Generally, foreign publications have limited space for Hong Kong stories. Fixers need to understand what they are looking for, then find the right sources to support the story.

As an example, when clashes broke out outside LegCo on June 12, fixers were supposed to inform foreign reporters of the legislative procedure in Hong Kong and connect them with politicians across the aisle to provide opinions on the bill. When protesters started chanting the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time” in July, fixers had to understand its connotations with the city’s localist movement, and the evolution of the separatist camp since the end of the 2014 protests.

For me, the most memorable experience has been working with Ben Wedeman, a veteran foreign correspondent based in Beirut. Having spent years covering the Arab Spring, he has been able to draw parallels between protests in Hong Kong and Lebanon, and how similarly their young people perceive freedom and democracy. Global perspectives help explain local events in a wider context.

The social unrest has created numerous opportunities for the journalism community in Hong Kong. As the new year begins, with no end to the unrest in sight, it remains to be seen how the media will continue to tell the story to the rest of the world.

Eric Cheung is a freelance journalist in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in international outlets including CNN International, The Guardian, Reuters, and the South China Morning Post.

 

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