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How COVID-19 Has Impacted Hong Kong Media

As Rick Boost discovers, the pandemic has pushed many media organisations in Hong Kong to adjust workplace policies, find new revenue streams and come out stronger. 

When COVID-19 swept across the globe in early 2020, it pummeled many media companies. Some slashed freelance budgets, others cut staff, closed offices and reduced nonessential spending.

Here in Hong Kong, we’ve witnessed mass staff layoffs and office closures – as seen at i-Cable and Quartz, respectively – as well as radical shifts in how teams work together. Nearly two years on, media companies in Hong Kong have found some footing, but the ground continues to shift.

“In early 2020, no one could have foreseen the impact that COVID would have on our personal and professional lives and changed the ways we live, work and interact,” says Atifa Silk, the Asia managing director of Haymarket Media.

“We had to adapt quickly and, thankfully, most of our people were able to embrace the changes and reap the rewards that working from home can bring.”

Magazines Entertainment and media revenue in Hong Kong plummeted 11.8 percent, or US$1 billion, in 2019, according to PWC.

The great migration

In early 2020, the government appealed to employers to allow staff to work from home to minimise social contact. Many Hong Kong media companies, including Haymarket, swiftly instated mandatory work-from-home (WFH) policies and entered a period of trial-and-error.

While Haymarket identified many benefits with remote work – more efficient meetings, fewer distractions, no commutes, time with family – they encountered a fair share of hurdles, too. “The sparks of creativity that happen in face-to-face conversations are hard to replicate virtually,” says Silk. “There can be fewer opportunities for immediate support and training for young talent. And there is the pressure of feeling like you’re always on – that lack of separation between work and home life can impact wellbeing and mental health.”

In September 2020, Haymarket conducted a company-wide survey on flexible work, asking staff: “Would you value the option to work from home one to two days a week?” Roughly 96 percent of staff in Asia responded positively. So, in November 2020, the company began piloting a flexible work model that encouraged employees to work from home. Since moving into a new office in Sheung Wan in August 2021, the company has refined the model. Now, all staff work in the office three days a week – two of which centre around collaborative tasks.

Cliff Buddle, special projects editor at the South China Morning Post and FCC board member, says remote work shook up the legacy publication. “For the first time in our history, we produced a newspaper with no editorial staff in the newsroom,” he says. “This was done at very short notice when our office temporarily closed. It was an impressive achievement, given that print publication requires much collaboration.”

Nick Thorpe, the East Asia director of media intelligence platform Telum Media, says many media companies in Asia had resisted the move toward remote work before the pandemic due to a “complex web of cultural and social hurdles”.

“Some staff had never worked from home before and found the prospect so alien – both due to traditional workplace structures and small apartments,” he continues.

“Some [people] opted to remain office-based even at the height of the pandemic, while others have barely been into the office for 18 months.”

By contrast, some young, nimble companies like Liv Media have long preferred flexible work models, encouraging employees to work remotely since launching its flagship, Liv magazine, in 2015.

“While there is a slight tradeoff in efficiency, we have seen great staff retention and overall employee satisfaction as people feel they have more control over their lives,” says Sarah Fung, Liv Media’s founder and publisher. “Productivity isn’t measured by a punch card – if you have good employees, you can trust them to manage their own schedules.”

 


5 Media Trends to Watch

  1. Remote Work: WFH will become an acceptable, and expected, aspect of employment.
  2. Health and Safety: Wellbeing in all its many guises will be an essential part of any work contract.
  3. Audiophilia: Podcasts are commanding more and more attention.
  4. New Revenue Streams: With so much free content on offer, media must look to value-added services.
  5. Social Media+: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and their progeny will command ever greater importance.
Sarah Fung During the downturn, Liv Media publisher Sarah Fung looked to new revenue streams such as awards, supplements and content creation.

Revising revenue streams

COVID-19 exposed the vulnerabilities of many industries – and media was not spared. In its “Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2020-2024: Hong Kong Summary”, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) reports that entertainment and media revenue in Hong Kong plummeted 11.8 percent, or US$1 billion, from US$8.5 billion in 2019 to US$7.8 billion in 2020.

“Hong Kong revenue was the worst-hit compared to global and Asia-Pacific markets,” states the report. The study also found that newspapers, magazines, and online advertising markets shrank, while video games, podcasts and over-the-top video services (such as Netflix or Hulu) grew.

“The pandemic has created a challenging environment for news organisations around the world,” Buddle adds. “The economic impact has hit advertising revenues, exacerbating problems newsrooms were already facing in finding new income streams and operating models. Those challenges will continue, although there are signs of improvement in Hong Kong as social-distancing restrictions are lifted.”

Organisations like Liv Media also felt the squeeze. “Lifestyle media budgets have been affected massively,” says Fung. “When the pandemic hit, our core sales categories – hospitality, travel and tourism, food, beverage and gyms – completely disappeared.”

During the downturn, Liv Media changed its strategy to look beyond traditional advertising. A significant portion of the brand’s revenue now comes from events, awards, guides, supplements, and bespoke content creation.

Fung also rolled out a free subscription service for readers and increased Liv magazine’s distribution network to 500 points across Hong Kong. These strategies – combined with the return of traditional ad spending – have put Liv in a stronger position for growth post-pandemic, she adds.

Haymarket also regrouped and pivoted. According to Silk, the company evaluated its operations, portfolio and services. For example, Haymarket conducted market research on the finance and marketing-communications industries, including qualitative interviews with readers and clients to better understand their needs.

The company also expanded its content solutions arm, leaned into subscription models and shifted its content strategy, adopting new tools, such as the digital storytelling platform Shorthand, to boost audience engagement.

“We challenged ourselves to think differently about our audiences and platforms,” says Silk. “The reset enabled us to reshape the Asia business and transform our revenue and financial profile, giving us a clear focus on building digital-first ideas and solutions.”

PWC’s more recent outlook, published in July, seems more optimistic. The report anticipates a 7.65 percent rise in Hong Kong’s 2021 entertainment and media revenues, from US$7.8 billion in 2020 to a projected US$8.4 billion in 2021.

Fung says she’s seen some renewed momentum on the sales front. “We’ve found that clients are starting to come back,” she says. “I think they’re tired of waiting for the pandemic to end and have realised that they need to keep marketing through the ‘new normal’.”

Many companies have leaned into digital-first storytelling.

Evolving career paths

Though the employment market for media professionals seemed dire this time last year, job openings in the industry seem to be picking up again. Thorpe says he’s observed exponential growth in the number of roles posted across Asia on Telum’s online Jobs Board.

“We’ve seen a lot of media outlets subsequently bounce back and kick-start hiring again, with digital and video journalism seeing a particular focus alongside more traditional reporting roles,” he says.

But now, publishers and editors prefer new hires to be just as diverse as their new revenue streams. “There’s probably not as much of a career path for someone who is just a writer post-COVID-19,” says Fung. “Employers are looking for media professionals with lots of strings in their bow, whether that’s graphic design, SEO, social media, photography or paid content creation.”

Thorpe broadly agrees, adding that the global crisis has shaken up traditional career paths in media. The pandemic – combined with a wealth of content creation channels online – has enabled many people with multimedia skills, like podcasting or video production, to break into the industry.

Thorpe expects that aspiring and existing media professionals alike will likely need to gain new skills in order to keep up. “There has been an explosion in media brands seeking experts in data, social media, video journalism, digital content creation and so on,” says Thorpe. “And of course, every media brand is looking at audio content today – there’s a gold rush in podcasting right now that shows no sign of slowing any time soon.”

 


Post-COVID Skill Set

Employers are increasingly seeking enhanced skills such as:

  • Video production
  • Audio production
  • Livestreaming
  • Graphic design
  • Social media skills
  • Writing for new media formats

 

Rick Boost is a born and raised Hongkonger. He has overseen copy and multimedia content at several of the city’s media outlets, including as HK Editor of Marketing Magazine/Interactive.

2021 Human Rights Press Awards Winners on Why Their Work Matters

It is lamentable that there was no shortage of entries for the 25th edition of the Human Rights Press Awards, which are organised by the FCC, Amnesty International and the Hong Kong Journalists Association. But as Rhea Mogul reports, the high standard of submissions was inspirational.

At the helm of any news story is a fierce commitment to telling the truth. Under increasing political and societal pressure, journalists now more than ever understand the need for urgent, accurate and nuanced reporting that holds power to account and defends vulnerable communities.

Despite increasing challenges, journalists’ unwavering quest for the truth remains one of the bulwarks of free expression and a free press. Their storytelling has exposed uncomfortable realities and given a voice to the voiceless.

Now in its 25th year, the Human Rights Press Awards sets out to celebrate the work of journalists from across Asia who have demonstrated tremendous courage in honouring these principles. Organised by the FCC, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and Amnesty International Hong Kong, this year’s winners were announced on 6 May.

Even in the face of particularly difficult times, which included a global pandemic and political upheaval, the winning journalists delivered original and compelling rights-related reporting that exposed wrongdoing.

The Correspondent spoke with a selection of winners about their work, what it reveals and why it matters.

 


 

Photography: Single Image
‘The Struggle’ by Alex Chan Tsz-yuk, CityDog.by

Freelance journalist Alex Chan Tsz-yuk’s winning photograph of a Hong Kong protester being held to the ground by two policemen was taken on 10 May 2020, after clashes broke out between the police and anti-government protesters in Mong Kok. Some 230 people were arrested that day, and the HKJA strongly condemned police treatment of reporters covering the event.

Alex Chan: “I saw three very young protesters get arrested. One young man – the one in the photograph – was trying to reach for something as the police arrested him, but he was pushed to the ground. His fingers then spread open to show the protest slogan ‘five demands, not one less’. That is why I named it ‘The Struggle’ because I think it matches what Hong Kong people are facing after the passing of the National Security Law. They continue with their struggle under political repression.

“That day was one of the most unfriendly journalists ever experienced at the hands of the Hong Kong police. Soon after I took the shot, I was pepper sprayed mercilessly. Some journalists, including myself, were forced to kneel down and stop recording. But instead of stopping, I took out a GoPro and continued my work.  

“The police also told us to show our press cards and made us say our names in front of a camera. They said they had recorded us for illegal assembly. During the very unpleasant experience, my only thought was that I need to protect the pictures I took, and try to publish it as soon as possible. As a journalist I will keep doing my work, document and tell the truth.”

 


 

Explanatory Feature Writing: Chinese
‘From Faceless to Voiceless: A Documentary Report of Hong Kong Citizens in Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement and National Security Law’ by Hung-Chin Chen, Tzu-Lei Yang, Long-Hei Chan, Yu-Ju Lee, Tzy-Tyng Chen, Hanshun Wang, Ling-Wei Hsu, Yu-Fang Lin, Cheng-He Mi, Ya-Wun Jheng, Yi-Ching Wu, Yu-Chieh Chen, Yi-Fen Kao and Chun-Hsien Lee, Mirror Media

Journalists from the Taiwan-based publication Mirror Media spent one year documenting how the lives of Hong Kong protesters changed after the implementation of the National Security Law. The judges praised their probing interviews, which encapsulated the feelings of Hong Kong people.

Hung-Chin Chen, one of the winning journalists on the Mirror Media team, explains: “I visited Hong Kong in 2019, during the pro-democracy movement, and interviewed nine Hong Kong people. Some were normal people like us, who were valiant protesters; others were legislators and scholars. Back then, we wanted to paint a picture about these people and understand what made them take to the streets, what they were feeling when they protested and what made them desperately fight for power under any circumstances.

“None of us could foresee that the National Security Law would soon be imposed on Hong Kong. In less than one year, we knew that the lives of these nine people would have changed drastically. We strongly wanted to write a follow-up report about what happened to them. 

“I felt sorry that some of them chose not to be interviewed again for fear of what would happen. I also felt so thankful that some were brave enough to accept, and told us that they were continuing with their defiance and protests. 

“Others told us that they had started hiding their social media posts out of fear. We tried conveying what this must have felt like, and how the new law changed their lives.

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history. We hope we can do our best to show our readers the truth and real change that Hong Kong has been facing.” 

 


 

Documentary Video: Chinese

Paul Lee, Bao Choy, Sze-sze Cheng, Flora Yeung, Judy Chan and Yiu-ling Wong, Radio Television Hong Kong

RTHK’s investigation into the Yuen Long attack of July 2019, which saw an armed mob beat commuters and protesters inside a subway station, was praised by the judges for “chasing the smallest clues” and “interrogating the powerful without fear or favour.”

Freelance producer Bao Choy was convicted and fined HK$6,000 in April for making false statements while obtaining vehicle registration records during her research. RTHK had tried to withdraw its entries from the competition but HRPA organisers declined to cooperate. In the wake of her conviction, we spoke with Choy and her teammate Sze-sze Cheng about their investigation and reporting process.

Bao Choy: “A year after the attack, many of the victims still haven’t found justice and the assailants remain unpunished. This should not be accepted in a civilised city. We therefore decided to reopen the investigation and look at all the tiny details which could provide more information and the forces behind the attack.

“A team of four spent a few months re-watching all the online footage from the night, as well as CCTV footage. We had to mark every tiny clue, and use those clues for further investigation. We used a spreadsheet to share our discoveries, partnering in teams of two to approach the alleged assailants because of security concerns.”

Sze-sze Cheng: “The process was long, but very rewarding. The most memorable part was when we approached villagers and asked for their responses. It was dangerous, but it was part of our job and we had to do it.”

Choy: “It was extremely difficult to get people to talk to us about this particular incident. It seems those white clad-men involved were asked to remain silent. In some ways, their silence reflects a part of the truth.

“Being truthful and transparent are the core values of our work as journalists. Winning this award is recognition of our team and effort. It is proof that we will counter those who want to erase or rewrite history.” 

Cheng: “Our reporter Bao Choy was charged and convicted of false declaration. I think that’s the most cynical thing, and she did her best to fight press freedom. Our work is a part of history and serves as important documentation.”

 


 

WINNER – Photography (Single Image)

The Struggle
Alex Chan Tsz Yuk, CityDog.by
Hong Kong, 10 May 2020

Protestor arrested Hong Kong A protester signals “Five demands, not one less” while getting arrested in Mong Kok.

 

WINNER – People’s Choice Photo Award

Little Brother and Little Sister
Fung Hoi Kin, Ming Pao
Hong Kong, 6 September 2020

When police “kettled” a crowd of demonstrators in Hong Kong, two young childen – brother and sister – attempted to flee but were grabbed by heavily armed officers. In a futile attempt to protect her, the boy reached out to his sibling.

‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ won the People’s Choice Award with more than 21,000 online votes. The Correspondent spoke with one of the HRPA organisers, Mary Hui, about the winning shot. 

“The photo was taken at the height of the mass protests. As has been widely reported, the Hong Kong police increasingly adopted a tactic of ‘kettling’ protesters and other citizens who happened to be near an area of protest, making mass arrests by sweeping up large groups of people,” says Hui. 

“This image of two underage siblings dressed in shorts and a T-shirt being forcibly restrained and overpowered by fully geared-up riot police officers is very striking. The widely documented use of heavy force by the police, and the unaccountability of the officers, was and continues to be a major public grievance that has severely damaged trust in law enforcement, and more broadly, the government. 

“I imagine that many people who voted for this photo thought that the image captured and represented these complexities in a split second.” 

 

MERIT – Photography (Single Image)

A Mob out for Blood
Danish Siddiqui, Reuters
India,
24 February 2020

A group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans, beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi. Zubair was on his way home from a mosque when he came across a large Hindu crowd. “They saw I was alone, they saw my cap, beard, clothes and saw me as a Muslim,” Zubair said. “They just started attacking, shouting slogans. What kind of humanity is this?”

 

WINNER –  Photography Series

Citizenship Law Protests
Danish Siddiqui, Reuters, India

An injured man is rushed to a hospital after clashes erupted over a new citizenship law in New Delhi on 25 February 2020.

 

A man brandishes a gun during a protest outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi on 30 January  2020.

 

MERIT –  Photography Series

Pro-Democracy Protests in Thailand
Lillian Suwanrumpha, Mladen Antonov and Jack Taylor, AFP, Thailand

Anti-government protesters gather in Sanam Luang during a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok on 19 September 2020.

 

A protester portraying a victim of abuse at school grimaces during a ‘Bad Student’ rally in Bangkok on 21 November 2020.

 

MERIT –  Photography Series

Plight of the Poor in India’s Lockdown
Jewel Samad, Arun Sankar, Money Sharma, Bhuvan Bagga, Sajjad Hussain Indranil Mukherjee and Himanshu Sharma, AFP, India

Police detain stranded migrant workers in Surat during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown on 4 May 2020.

 

A policeman fills up bottles with water for migrant workers in Ajmer after the government eased a nationwide lockdown on 18 May 2020.

 


 

Rhea Mogul is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including Forbes.com, Hong Kong Free Press and South China Morning Post.

Looking Back on a Year of Eroding Press Freedom Under the National Security Law

Editor’s Note: As The Correspondent went to press on 17 June, NSL police were once again searching Next Digital headquarters after arresting Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law and four other executives for alleged collusion with foreign forces.

Read the FCC’s official statement regarding Apple Daily’s closure here


How did Hong Kong media react to a catch-all law that sent shockwaves through the territory and beyond? Jennifer Creery explores the law’s far-reaching ramifications.

Jimmy Lai Police lead Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, 72, away from his home after he was arrested under the NSL on 10 August 2020. (Photo: Vernon Yuen / AFP)

On the morning of 10 August 2020, hundreds of national security police raided the Tseung Kwan O office of Next Digital, the parent company of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. Winding up the slate staircase, uniformed officers made their way into the newsroom on the second floor, occasionally stopping to inspect items on desks. Just hours earlier, police had arrested the company’s founder, Jimmy Lai, at his home in Ho Man Tin for alleged collusion with foreign forces. 

The unprecedented arrest and raid were two of the first major acts against the press carried out under the National Security Law (NSL), enacted on 30 June 2020. Just days after the law was passed, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she could guarantee press freedom if journalists could also guarantee “that they will not commit any offences” under the law.

Long a thorn in the side of the establishment, Apple Daily was a predictable first target. Founded in 1995, the tabloid made a name for itself with its celebrity gossip, shoe-leather reporting and criticism of Beijing. It doubled down on its position during months of street protests that began over an ill-fated extradition bill in 2019, drawing the ire of government officials. Police said in a statement on Facebook that officers had entered the building with a search warrant to investigate an offence related to the legislation.

In the year since the NSL became a reality, Hong Kong’s media landscape has undergone a seismic shift: The New York Times has started moving approximately one-third of its Hong Kong staff to Seoul in South Korea; iCable fired 40 staff last December; and civil servants working for public broadcaster RTHK have been required to pledge allegiance to the government. 

RTHK has also deleted critical programmes across its web and social platforms; axed politically contentious shows; and attempted to pull submissions from awards, while its freelance producer, Bao Choy, was found guilty of knowingly making false statements to obtain vehicle licence records – making her the first person to be convicted of a crime related to the Yuen Long mob attack on 21 July 2019. In May, RTHK fired journalist Nabela Qoser, known for her tough questioning of officials.

“It’s pretty unprecedented for anyone anywhere in the civil service to lose their job,” says David*, an RTHK staffer who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely. “Civil service contracts are the golden rice bowl.”

His account of the last three years tells a bleak tale of shifting goalposts and self-censorship, accelerated under the new Director of Broadcasting Patrick Li. Previously the Deputy Secretary of Home Affairs, Li was ushered in during an overhaul of the organisation after the law’s introduction.

Hundreds of police officers search the Next Media offices following the arrest of Jimmy Lai. Hundreds of police officers search the Next Media offices following the arrest of Jimmy Lai. (Photo: Isaac Lawrence/ AFP)

According to David, an interview with democratic district councillor Michael Mo was axed from the programme “Letter to Hong Kong” without explanation; a re-recording of the segment with the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA)’s Chris Yeung was also rejected under murky circumstances. In the end, Eugene Chan, the president of the pro-Beijing Association of Hong Kong Professionals, put in an appearance instead.

“The HKJA is facing an increasingly difficult environment in defending journalists’ rights,” Yeung tells The Correspondent. “The association is itself being targeted by pro-Beijing media and groups. [But] we will continue to speak up and stand alert.”

In another instance, David says, senior management from RTHK’s editorial committee questioned producers over whether a show on Myanmar could be interpreted as a commentary on Hong Kong – up to four hours before going on air in March. “It’s intimidation and creating deliberate uncertainty,” says David.

For the news writing team, he says, one method for working around political sensitivities has been to lead articles with government or police statements, thus giving credence to the stories.“We’re relying on doing things in the shadows and hoping [management] doesn’t notice. But of course, that’s not the way you should be doing it. You should be taking pride in your work.”

David’s experience cuts across many newsrooms in Hong Kong. HK01, an online outlet known for its investigations and close government contacts, faced an internal dilemma in the tumultuous months before the enactment of the law, according to a reporter, John*, which is not his real name.

John says both HK01’s founder, Yu Pun-hoi, and Chief Editor Ernest Chi Pan-year, asked staff to update the headline of an article containing arrest figures because it created a “negative image” of police and was too sympathetic towards protesters: “I think [Chi] wanted to maintain a good relationship with police. In the past they were only sensitive to [mainland] Chinese government issues,” says John.

At Next Digital, the situation has grown increasingly tense since the raid and arrest last August. As staff gathered on the floor of the newsroom on 5 May, Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, responded to rumours that authorities would force the newspaper to close in the coming months, declaring: “Apple Daily will not close on its own.”

It was a defiant stance but provided little relief for some staff. “They felt that management didn’t have a contingency [plan] in place and that their fears had been dismissed,” says Oscar*, which is not his real name, a reporter who attended the meeting.

Apple Daily Founded before the Handover, Apple Daily has rarely held back from running hard news stories, especially when it comes to lambasting Beijing.

For over a year, Next Digital staff had been feeling pressure from the police. Between April 2020 and 2021, the police public relations bureau sent at least 89 “misleading report” letters to Apple Daily. In response to a report on a Hong Kong Police College open day to mark National Security Education Day on 15 April, the force criticised a photo caption reading, “What have [police] taught the next generation?”, and accused the publication of “distorting the original purpose” behind the event.  

In an email reply, a police representative told The Correspondent that the department sent the letters to improve public understanding in order to “earn their support and trust … There has been an overwhelming volume of unfounded information circulated in the society over the last few years,” wrote the representative. “Police absolutely respect freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” 

Despite management reaffirming its commitment to editorial independence after the NSL, Apple Daily has not been immune to internal controversy. On 15 April, the Equal Opportunities Commission released a letter that chided the newspaper for its continued use of the term “Wuhan pneumonia” to describe COVID-19, which was first detected in the capital of Hubei. 

Within a week, Apple Daily replaced the term with “Pneumonia epidemic”. Some staff saw it as a capitulation. “I think that incident was the first [of its kind] – that’s why it drew such a response,” Oscar says.

The inaugural National Security Education Day on 15 April 2021 was not greeted with universal acclaim. (Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP)

The working conditions for many local journalists were far from ideal before the NSL brought added risks and pressures. Low salaries and long hours, coupled with increasing output quotas and news fatigue, meant that several years into the profession left journalists burnt out and looking for alternative career options.

“I want to leave but which media can I go to?” asks John, who laments a scarcity of well-paid positions on teams similar to his at HK01. “[Journalists] have a higher level of education; we have a bachelor’s degree, but our salaries are so low. And after the protests [and NSL] we could get charged – so why do we stay here and do this job?”

Some have chosen to leave. Three HK01 staffers, one of whom was senior, have immigrated to the UK, according to John. Several former staff at Apple Daily have also departed for places including the UK, Oscar says, due to poor working conditions, worsened by political pressures.

This kind of industry brain drain threatens to usher in a generation of younger, inexperienced journalists who may lack the judgement, skills and sources to provide the quality of journalism delivered by their predecessors. In particular, they may have yet to establish in-roads with government officials or police officers, relying on carefully tailored press conferences and statements.

“It’s impossible for new journalists to build those sources,” says Oscar, pointing to the precarious nature of building trust in professional relationships after the NSL. “If you have watched i-Cable TV after the mass walkout [in December 2020], there is quite an obvious difference in the quality of the programmes.”

Now that the NSL is a day-to-day reality, Oscar casts a gloomy eye over his career. He says he had, like many other journalists, pursued a career as a reporter with hopes that a more informed society would lead to democratic development. “To end up in a completely opposite direction – it is not what I expected.”

*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity, owing to potential professional or legal ramifications.


Jennifer Creery is an FCC Clare Hollingworth fellow and Curated Content Editor at the Financial Times. Prior to her current role she was an editor at Hong Kong Free Press.

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.

 

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