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Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Implications for Journalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before we kick this off, can you introduce yourselves? 

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

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

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

What does the NSL say about journalism? 

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

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

How are you feeling about the law at the moment? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could the law pose problems for journalists? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might the government punish ‘rogue’ media? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could entrapment become more common? 

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

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

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

Do you think press freedom is dead in Hong Kong? 

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

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

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

Read the law in full here.

Speaking Up for Press Freedom in Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus: Life in Hubei during lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our time of total confinement began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the protests happened.

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

For years I’ve liked fusion in my identity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An escape to Shenzhen

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

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

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

“Does anyone know which way is clear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sometimes, outsiders can be the best witnesses’

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

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

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

I chose to stay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye, Hong Kong

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

Dear Hong Kong,

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

But that would be a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Diego Mendoza

‘Parachute journalists’ and the fixers who break their fall

by Eric Cheung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hong Kong Protests: Reflections from the front line

The Correspondent invited reporters and photographers to have their say about witnessing months of protests in Hong Kong. Only one person declined, with a good reason. He told me his continuous 18-hour days left him no time for reflection. Others replied in their own individual way, with stories of injury, exhaustion, conflicted emotions and obvious career opportunities. Some stories are moving, some are troubling, and they are all enlightening. I thank everyone for their contribution and hope you stay safe however this story unfolds. – Sue Brattle, Editor.

Lessons learned will never be forgotten

by Abhishyant Kidangoor is Associate Video Producer at TIME magazine, Hong Kong

When I look back on the past few months, two moments stand out to me. One was when I realised the gravity of the story that I had the chance to cover, and another that changed my perspective and helped me learn an important lesson in journalism.

Protests in Sheung Wan on July 21. Protests in Sheung Wan on July 21.

The first three weeks of covering the story as a video journalist were thrilling, as it would have been for any journalist with just a few years of work experience. It was on June 21, when protesters laid siege to the police headquarters in Wan Chai, that I realised the enormity of the issue. Standing by the HQ and observing the sea of protesters singing, chanting slogans and waving their cellphone lights was as surreal as it could get. For me, it was the first of many instances where I realised that this wasn’t going to be a short-lived problem.

In the weeks that followed, incessant calls from friends and family were dismissed as paranoia. After all, what more could a journalist ask for than to be in the middle of one of the biggest international stories of the year?

But reality hit hard exactly a month after. It turned personal when protests came closer to where I live. Tear gas and petrol bombs were being fired right at my doorstep. Earlier, I could go back home after a day of covering the protests; now I could see the city descend into chaos right from my rooftop. Walking past graffiti sprayed by protesters and seeing police vans pulling up right outside my building was an eye-opening experience that pulled me out of my journalist bubble.

I moved here for work and can flee to the safety of my home country whenever I wish. But for thousands of others, fighting on both sides, this is the home that they love. It opened my eyes to the fact that I have never had to fight for my home. For me, the Hong Kong protests is a story and I get the chance to move on to the next assignment. But for many others, it’s the uncertain future of their home and life. The empathy that I developed out of this realisation has been the most invaluable experience in my short career as a journalist.

When your home becomes a conflict zone

by Jessie Pang, Correspondent, Reuters, and FCC Clare Hollingworth Fellow

I aspired to be a foreign war correspondent, but then my home became a conflict zone. As I covered the upheaval this year, I struggled with what it means to be a reporter and a Hongkonger at the same time. With one eye, I see things as a journalist; dispassionate, concerned only with facts. Yet with the other eye, I see things as a Hongkonger, torn with raw emotion as I see my people suffer.

26 June Wan Chai PHQ Siege 26 June Wan Chai PHQ Siege

Reconciling these two personas sometimes feels like denying myself an identity, but things move fast and I have to keep the film rolling. The news isn’t about me, and it’s not my place to decide Hong Kong’s political fate nor to make a judgment. My job isn’t to stir action in a certain direction or to slander those who I believe are wrong.

No, my job is to expose and to pursue the truth impartially. To show the world the complexities and beauty of our city, from all sides. The streets aren’t filled with enemies, yellow or otherwise, nor objects to be beaten or treated as targets of hate, but humans deserving of protections, rights, prosperity and love.

Because behind every face there is a human being with a story. And it is my calling to pierce the veil and tell a story, their story, and let them say: “I am human and this is the world as I see it.”


‘I returned home safe to my wife’

by Phila Siu Chi-yui, Senior Reporter, South China Morning Post. Phila’s wife gave birth to a “beautiful daughter” a few days before he wrote this very moving reflection.

My heavily pregnant wife broke down in tears when she saw me packing my full-face mask, helmet and press vest into my backpack one day in July before I headed out the door. I was about to cover a protest.

New father: Phila with his wife Kanas Chiu and daughter New father: Phila with his wife Kanas Chiu and daughter

“Why do you have to carry this gear with you every day?” she asked me, her right hand holding her belly. I tried to comfort her. I promised her I would return home safe and that she had to eat her meals so our daughter would be born healthy and strong. I do not remember if I cried with her at that time, but I had done so numerous times before that, for all the stunningly shocking events that have taken place since June.

As promised, I returned home safe to my wife that day, as I did every other time I was sent out onto the tear gas-filled streets to report on the biggest crisis I have ever witnessed in my home, Hong Kong.

I have been a journalist for about 10 years. I hardly consider myself a veteran, but I thought I had already seen much in my career and I had covered the Occupy protests of 2014. Back then, an editor told me that I must treasure every chance I had covering the movement, as that might be the biggest news we would ever report on in Hong Kong.

We were all wrong.

And so, there I was, out on the streets, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds on one side, and protesters throwing petrol bombs and bricks on the other. My wife, meanwhile, was sitting on our sofa at home, wondering whether her husband would emerge from it all unscathed. Whenever I had a chance, I would text or call her to tell her I was fine. She stayed up to wait for me, no matter how late I got home.

During these past months, I must confess there were times I wondered about my job, being out there on the streets. I saw people getting beaten up and my first instinct was to take photos and videos, instead of separating them. Minutes later, I would send information back to the newsroom for the live blog we were running for our readers around the world, and move on to the next scene.

One day, when I was covering a protest in North Point, three anti-protest men were spotted on a slope holding knives. Some residents warned everyone not to get close but our first reaction as journalists was to rush up to take photos. We took a few steps forward and they kicked two cans of suspected petrol on the ground.

When the police finally took the thugs into their vehicle, the realisation of the purpose of my job hit me: I was there to make sure the “first draft of history” was accurate, and that the whole world understood what was happening in Hong Kong. While I might not be able to stop a disaster from happening at the scene, journalism does not stop me from doing something human, from communicating to others the facts on the ground.

That night, I moved on to Yuen Long and got home just past midnight. My wife was waiting. I took a shower and soaked my clothes and protective gear in disinfectant. I knocked on our bedroom door and told her she could finally come out to the living room to give me a hug. She came out with a ready smile on her face. It was at that moment that I knew, I just knew, there was nowhere else like home.

‘We’re watching, whether the whole world is watching or not’

by Selma Masood, Principal of SM & Co Solicitors and a convenor for HKNLOG

The city I have called home for the past 41 years, and the city I love, seems somewhat distorted at the moment – a little less focused, a bit lost in time.

Lawyers in green high-visibility vests observe a march Lawyers in green high-visibility vests observe a march

Recent incidents during the demonstrations and other related public gatherings in Hong Kong have raised questions about the city’s rule of law, the enforcement of the law and the administration of justice. The most popular option for combating the political apocalypse appears to be griping about it on social media to other people who already feel the same way.

But it struck me that we, as lawyers, might have more to offer. So I, together with a group of senior Hong Kong Lawyers, formed the Hong Kong Neutral Legal Observers Group (HKNLOG) to try and observe what is really happening.

It might seem unnecessary in the days of smartphone cameras but that second set of eyes serving as a witness, acting as a neutral party, may be comforting to those on the ground.

Selma Masood Selma Masood

I have attended most, if not all the public gatherings over the summer. Being present in the front lines means some risk of being subjected to tear gas and pepper spray. I attend protests clad in my green high visibility vest, hard hat, goggles and gas mask, armed with a notepad, camera and smartphone to document what happens between protesters and the police.

I believe that legal observers provide a calming effect for both sides. Everyone knows there’s someone there watching as a neutral force and it is a good presence to have at a protest.

Protests have been largely peaceful, although they have escalated quite dramatically which is a cause for concern and leaves me anxious. Some of the issues I have observed relate to criminal damage and vandalism, potential interference with constitutional rights of public assembly, and the widespread use of stop and search.

I have also observed the throwing of objects, setting of fires and the deployment of water cannon vehicles. I have witnessed physical violence and the use of excessive force, coming from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as the use of force against the public.

What has moved me the most over the past months is the resilience of the Hong Kong people, from all walks of life, from all professions and of all ages. Hongkongers are truly creative – where else in the world would you see flashmob singalongs, laser pen shows, human chains, online crowd-funding campaigns, Lennon walls, 10pm chantings, mooncakes sporting popular protest slogans on their crusts, protest art, flags and the “be water” slogan?

I hope the picture of this magnificent city becomes re-focused. I miss the city of lights, the entrepreneurial energy that makes Hong Kong so special. I’m confident we’ll find our way. If any city has the capability to rebound, Hong Kong can.

Calming influence of neutral lawyers standing by 

The Hong Kong Neutral Legal Observers Group (HKNLOG) was formed in early August. The founding members felt there was a need for neutral observers to attend public gatherings to observe what was happening and to help maintain the rule of law in Hong Kong.

HKNLOG is a politically neutral organization, whose membership is open to all members of the Hong Kong legal profession regardless of their political inclinations or affiliations, subject to agreement that when they represent HKNLOG they remain neutral and impartial. It takes no position on the “five demands” and instead aims to look at events through a legal, rather than political, lens. It currently has around 50 members, including partners of international and local law firms, junior and senior counsel, and in-house lawyers in companies and financial institutions.

Anti-extradition demonstration on July 28, 2019, Hong Kong. Photo: May James Anti-extradition demonstration on July 28, 2019, Hong Kong. Photo: May James

In relation to the rule of law, HKNLOG is not neutral, and considers it has an obligation to promote and uphold the rule of law. Its members observe and record what they see and in particular any potential infringements of law, in order to gain a balanced perspective of what is taking place in Hong Kong.

These observations then form the basis for free seminars to educate members of the public on their legal rights and obligations and for periodic public reports on what the group is observing and related legal issues. HKNLOG plans to issue the first of its public reports shortly. It also hopes that the presence of lawyers might serve as a reminder of how important it is for both sides to respect the law and the rule of law.

*Further information about HKNLOG is available at or email: [email protected]

‘I want to be candid about how we’re all feeling’

Christy Choi is a freelance executive producer and presenter with Reuters. She has covered the protests for The Guardian and The Telegraph, and has also worked with Bloomberg, the SCMP, the LA Times and German wire service dpa

Twelve to 14-hour days. Fifteen weekends of work. Tear gas, rubber bullets, smashed glass, burning barricades, people beaten and people beating. Group chats, live streams, witnessing in person, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, LIHKG, email, conversations with friends, family, strangers. There’s a toll from this bombardment.

I’ve been watching the press corps fray at the edges for weeks now, everyone struggling to keep up with the news as the protesters “be water”, deluged under the sheer amount of information and misinformation being peddled out there, unable to switch off from the traumatic scenes, but also spurred on by some beautiful hopeful moments.

But how much can we do if we burn out? What do we do when our fight or flight responses are so constantly switched on in a form of PTSD that we see threats everywhere? Can we really make good judgment calls in the middle of all this?

 And yet this is something that we confess rarely. Sometimes I get messages, calls, whispers asking: “How do you do it so effortlessly, how are you so tireless, and bold?”

 I don’t, and I’m not.

It seems effortless when all you see is the result. I don’t seem tired, because when you see my bylines you’re not seeing the bags under my eyes, feeling the tension in my muscles, listening to the stream of information going through my head. I seem fearless, because calm is how I react in an emergency. Super-calm under pressure, my instinct is to snap into problem-solving mode, but I inevitably pay for it weeks later when I get run down and sick, and I don’t realise the pressure has reached an unsustainable level.

Christy Choi says ‘right now I’m glad to be on vacation’ Christy Choi says ‘right now I’m glad to be on vacation’

I want to address this, to be candid about how we’re all feeling:

We are not tireless, what we do is not effortless, and we are scared. We’re human.

We need to have time with our loved ones, we need to have moments when we feel safe, when we’re allowed to switch off.

I haven’t been able to do that enough for four months and I feel the toll. I’m cranky, I feel like I’m being a bad friend, a bad daughter, and at times even a bad journalist, because I don’t feel as sharp as I should be and am normally.

Christy Choi Christy Choi

I feel like I’m often reacting, and that all I want is to be able to step back and take a long hard look at what’s going on.

And so right now I’m glad to be on vacation. It’s only now in New York that I finally feel able to switch off. Like my head and heart are being given the space, the distance for some measure of reflection to happen.

This morning I spent time getting my nephew ready for school, listening to him chatter about his taekwondo practice, and getting in some serious cuddle time. And it’s in this space I’m finding a renewed sense of direction.

I’m less tired, and am nourished by the beautiful, ordinary moments of life. Buoyed by the silliness of my nephew, his ingenuity and curious excitement about the world. Reminded of why I became a journalist in the first place. That curiosity, that wish to explore the world, to see things many ways.

And so I leave you all with this image of us both in the bathroom, playing around with the mirrored cabinets, the doors brought together at an angle where our faces are reflected in an infinite loop of faces, laughing, and playfully asking which of those are the true us.

I hope it nourishes you as much as it does me.

‘People have been opening up like never before’

Florence de Changy is the Hong Kong correspondent of Le Monde and Radio France International (RFI), and a former President of the FCC

“Keep safe and take care!” How many times have friends from abroad told me this over the course of the last three months?

TV footage, including impressive but very short-lived bonfires being played on a loop in living rooms around the world, coupled with dramatic pictures of a city blurred in the fog of tear gas, may make it look like a warzone from far away.

What we have in fact been covering would be better described as an acute political crisis coupled with on-going protests. The truth is, despite the emphasis of the protesters on police brutality, by international standards, both sides have actually shown an undeniable amount of restraint [at the time of writing].

“I don’t want to give any wrong idea to anyone about how to escalate this, but in most other places on earth, this would have long become a very nasty and bloody situation,” risk analyst Stevo Stephen told me, when we spotted each other strolling on Hennessy Road on one of these could-turn-messy Sunday nights.

Florence de Changy interviewing frontline protesters in Causeway Bay Florence de Changy interviewing frontline protesters in Causeway Bay

Pointing to the canyon-like streets and the population’s density, he said this urban jungle has many extreme variables on offer which could contribute to violence escalating in a flash. He went on to say what Chief Executive Carrie Lam expressed a few days ago, that it is, indeed, quite remarkable that the crisis has not had serious fatalities… yet.

The situation on that night in particular was pretty surreal. We were following a horde of riot police, escorted by water cannon trucks and armoured vehicles that were themselves following journalists. In other words, a protest with no protesters. Police and the press were feeling vaguely abandoned. It quickly turned out that all the action was taking place in Fortress Hill.

Of course, you also see the opposite picture, protesters without police, like the long hours that preceded the storming of LegCo on July 1 with the police clearly adopting a “be my guest” attitude while protesters slowly and steadily worked their way in.

As always, nothing is straightforward or simple in this story, but what makes covering it, day after day, simply fascinating are the encounters it enables you to make. It seems I have had more in-depth conversations with Hongkongers during this summer of 2019 than in my entire 13-year stay. People have been opening up like never before. Sometimes it’s just a few words. Sometimes they share their life stories with you. Partly thanks to the Hong Kong Journalists Association sponsored Press vests many of us have been wearing for most of our night outings recently, strangers sometimes would just come up to me, on my way in or out of a protest, offering advice, tips or views.

The crisis as a whole and the way it has been handled so far has deepened my respect for this society, its youth and its aspirations in particular. Demanding, daring, smart, sophisticated and peace-loving – yet undoubtedly angry.

Chris Yeung Chris Yeung

Speaking up to protect press freedom

Chris Yeung, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, talks to Morgan M. Davis, a finance reporter at Euromoney’s GlobalCapital

Journalism unions and associations have been garnering a great deal of attention lately, as they step up to represent their reporters, advocating with governments and police forces to fight for the safety and wellbeing of working journalists. Likewise, reporter unions have been drawing attention to unfair pay and work standards in newsrooms.

Over the summer, Buzzfeed agreed to recognise an employee union, after months of negotiations and a staff walkout. Likewise, in early 2018, Los Angeles Times’ journalists formed the first union in the news organisation’s lengthy history, and the guild has since been pushing for fair contracts for the paper’s staff.

In Hong Kong, journalist unions and associations are playing a particularly important role, as press safety and freedom has been thrown into the international spotlight. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has worked in the city since 1968 and its chair Chris Yeung spoke with The Correspondent about HKJA’s work and the importance of such organisations.

The Correspondent: What role do journalism unions and associations play in the everyday life of journalists? 

Chris Yeung: Journalists can only play their role effectively with press freedom and safeguards against threats to press freedom. One of the major objectives of the journalists association is to fight for press freedom and curb restrictions and counter-threats to a free press. On a day-to-day level, we strive to make sure there are no unnecessary obstructions to journalists in doing their reporting. These include access to events and places to report news that are of public interest. We are monitoring the situation and will make views public if and when necessary.

The Correspondent: There’s been some attention given to journalism unions in the U.S. recently, as publications have been fighting to have recognised unions. Why are these unions important for journalists?

Chris Yeung: Unity is strength. It is always important that journalists within a media outlet or among the whole sector can join hands to campaign for their benefits and interests. By doing so, they have greater bargaining power with their employers. And at the societal level, a more powerful union will help fight for greater protection of their well-being through policies and legislations.

The Correspondent: Given the current political situation in Hong Kong, what role do you see organisations like yours playing?

Chris Yeung: Aside from the difficult business environment, the political environment and freedom climate have sharply declined in recent months due to the protests. It is even more important for the HKJA to fly the banner of press freedom to rally public support.

The Correspondent: What can your organisation do to protect press freedom?

Chris Yeung: Speak up when there are threats to press freedom. Public support is vitally important. We strive to tell the public why and how an independent and free press is important to safeguard freedoms in HK. We keep fighting for greater legal protection to press freedom. These include laws on archives and access to information.

‘Let’s stay true to the tale of two cities’

Annemarie Evans, presenter on RTHK, is a British broadcast and print journalist, based in Hong Kong since 1993

The developments over the past three months have taught me that, because of the cherry-picking that occurs when covering a story, the story itself becomes skewed.

Annemarie Evans Annemarie Evans

The view abroad is one of a city in uproar. You’d think Hong Kong was Brixton during the worst riots in 1980s London – on a permanent basis. Some of the coverage has felt so surreal, I wondered if I was living in the same city.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of shocking violence, and with the increased use of petrol bombs and vandalism as a tool, it’s getting worse.

But the nature of an agency photo is that you get the most dramatic one. So it’s hard for me to convince people that it’s almost a tale of two cities, where ordinary life goes on.

I think there have also been certain journalists getting off on the drama. What’s that all about? Just do your job.

Early comparisons to Tiananmen – want to build up to those? The tale needs to be told fairly. I respect Joshua Wong, but a 22-year-old is not the only voice. Make sure you interview the “duller” middle-aged ones, too.

It’s also made me look back at some of the stories I parachuted into overseas, and made me wonder whether I really had all my facts.

There’s been some stunning and brave coverage. The pace has been relentless, particularly for smaller news outlets, but we do need to stay true.

‘I followed the voices and they helped me wash the pain away’

May James is a new FCC member and freelance photographer

I never imagined myself being in a “war” as a frontline photographer, nor to be witnessing any political movement. It all just started because I was practising different types of photography.

June 12: Photographer May James is treated after being pepper-sprayed June 12: Photographer May James is treated after being pepper-sprayed. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

When I attended the first march on June 9, people were on the streets to protest a proposed extradition bill. When I returned to the march around 6pm from another shoot, I was stunned by the scene. Crowds and crowds, chants after chants. I thought capturing it would be hard, but a single “Excuse me”, and I had my spot.

I came out again on June 12. It was a long, silent wait standing between the demonstrators and police outside government headquarters. When I returned from a short break, people were running past me choking, with the skin on their arms red and their eyes watery. Others helped wash their faces.

I rushed to the front; a few photographers were taking pictures of a used tear gas canister on the ground. Police were shouting and holding pepper spray, aiming at the umbrellas of the demonstrators. Next, loud noises came from firing. People were fleeing, police were advancing and tear gas seemed to be coming from all sides. It was chaotic.

Police firing to the protesters during the crack down in admiralty on September 15, 2019. Photo: May James Police firing to the protesters during the crackdown in admiralty on September 15, 2019. Photo: May James

My eyes, legs, arms and face were burning. My 3M surgery mask was soaked. Breathing became difficult. I was overwhelmed and unable to think straight. I was glad to hear “Ladies first”, “This way”, “Give me your camera”. I followed the voices and they helped me wash the pain away. I left with a sense of relief but disappointment, stinging legs and smelly damp clothes.

Since then I’ve photographed more than 40 different demonstrations over three months. The tear gas, pepper spray and the blue water [from water cannons] have become bearable. The accidental spray from Molotov cocktails, bricks, tear gas canisters and other flying objects are now expected.

However, the marches have evolved into a radical series of events taking place simultaneously across the city, with rumours spreading over the internet. Making decisions and interpreting signs on the ground to where I should be next has become far harder.

In spite of all this, I have found a calm place inside me where I am working. I can see more clearly some of the beauty that can be found within this sad reality. The friendship born in the moment between journalists and our support for each other is priceless. The grateful and kind words from citizens are encouraging. Overall, I feel fortunate to be among those who are documenting and sharing these upheavals in my home city. It has been a life-changing experience for me.

Mong Kok, August 3. Photo: May James Mong Kok, August 3. Photo: May James

Keeping up with the Twittersphere

Mary Hui, a reporter for Quartz and an FCC Clare Hollingworth Fellow, takes a look at how the media are using social media

The nature of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests — quick-changing, fast-flowing, widespread, decentralised, and spontaneous — makes it fiendishly difficult to keep track of all the latest developments. For journalists covering the movement, this has meant relying on three key tools for receiving and disseminating information: the encrypted messaging app Telegram; the local online forum LIHKG; and, of course, Twitter.

Of the three, Twitter is the most outward-facing platform and the most widely used among English-language journalists reporting on the protests. For a movement that is so intensely visual – think the human chains, the crowd parting like the Red Sea, the graphic videos of assaults, the colourful Post-it notes, the AirDrops of protest materials – Twitter is the perfect platform to present audiovisual material, alongside bite-sized portions of context and analysis.  

 Unfortunately, it’s also ripe with misinformation and outright falsehoods. Twitter has so far shut down more than 5,200 accounts in China that were found to be attempting to sow discord and disinformation in Hong Kong. Those accounts were part of a larger “spammy network” of some 200,000 China-based accounts. In an attempt to push back against the Chinese state narrative, and also to internationalise their publicity efforts, Hong Kong’s protesters have flocked to Twitter, as my colleague Isabella Steger has reported.

Demonstrators overflow Victoria Park under the heavy rain. Photo: May James Demonstrators overflow Victoria Park under the heavy rain. Photo: May James

For journalists, being on Twitter means having to sift through mountains of questionable material. The onus is on them to do due diligence and ensure, to the best of their ability, that they do not contribute to the dissemination of inaccurate information.

Mary Hui Mary Hui

Then there’s the harassment issue. Aside from targeting journalists with vile comments, some Twitter trolls have openly called for the doxxing of certain members of the press. Last month, there began to circulate a collage of Twitter profile images of mostly women journalists of Asian descent writing for English-language media, with calls to expose the reporters’ personal details.

I had the honour of making it onto the list, alongside illustrious company. The offending tweet (and perhaps also the account) appears to have since been taken down, but the battle against the trolls is never-ending. For my part, I try to report any account that is clearly fake, or that is harassing myself or others.

As Twitter continues to feel like an extension of our journalist bodies, there emerges the question of whether or how to separate reportage and opinion. Elaine Yu, a former AFP correspondent covering Hong Kong and now a freelance journalist, sees value in understanding another reporter’s opinion. “I like, or don’t mind, opinion as long as it’s original and thought-provoking,” she said. “Knowing a journalist’s politics and subjectivity helps us understand their coverage better, too.”

I find myself in the same camp as author Antony Dapiran, who said: “I don’t think anyone in this post-post-modern age still genuinely believes in the sham of objectivity.” As both a journalist and a Hongkonger, I’m reminded of what Eliza Griswold, a visiting professor at Princeton with whom I took a journalism class (and who won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction this year), drilled into us: “Own your subjectivities.”

It’s something I keep in mind as I live and breathe protest Twitter. 

Media play a vital role and have met their challenge fearlessly

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based lawyer, writer and photographer and author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong

Another Sunday night in Causeway Bay, as the day’s protests dwindled, something was happening. Wedged between a large delivery truck and the windows of a cha caan teng, there was shouting and shoving, and a huge group of media and onlookers crammed in on either side.

The riot police had withdrawn moments earlier, and now it looked like some kind of confrontation had broken out.

Hong Kong-based lawyer and writer, Antony Dapiran. Photo: May James Hong Kong-based lawyer and writer, Antony Dapiran. Photo: May James

Was it a clash with a pro-government supporter? Another suspected undercover police officer discovered in the crowd? I joined the back of the pack, up against the window, trying to see what was in the midst of that mass of people, but to no avail. Then, I happened to glance through the window into the cha caan teng: a television was on the wall opposite me. The television was tuned to the usual live broadcast of the protests.

The broadcast was showing a huge group of media and onlookers wedged between a large delivery truck and the windows of a cha caan teng. I noticed the camera was filming from the other side of the crowd – if I stuck my arm up and waved I could probably wave at myself on the TV. But I still couldn’t see what was going on in the middle of the crowd.

Poet, musician and author Gil Scott-Heron told us: “The revolution will not be televised.” This one has been more than televised, it has been livestreamed: terrestrial TV, cable TV, Facebook Live, Twitter. You can pull up a livestream aggregator on your computer and watch a dozen different streams running simultaneously. But does that improve the quality of the information viewers are receiving?

A livestream can provide a lot of images, but still not necessarily the full picture. The imagery, reminiscent of an action movie or a video game, almost makes the events seem less real. These last few months, the media have been playing a vital role, ensuring the public is receiving the best understanding possible of the events roiling our city. Hong Kong’s protesters have a slogan: “Those born in troubled times bear a heavy responsibility.” It is a slogan which may apply equally to Hong Kong’s media, a challenge they have met fearlessly.

Finding balance at #HongKongProtests

Unlike Facebook, Twitter is a solid platform for real-time, breaking news coverage that’s faster than any news outlet – and following the right people is essential. The FCC’s Social Media Editor Sarah Graham, who has seen the Club’s social media engagement increase during the protests, takes a look at four protest Twitter personalities.

Hong Kong Hermit (@HongKongHermit) has become something of a Twitter celebrity since the protests began, having been ‘identified’ by Chinese social media users as a CIA operative directing the protests. This inadvertently boosted Hermit’s kudos and Twitter following (he’s currently at just shy of 39,000 followers – up from 4,000 before the protests began). In reality, Hermit live streams and tweets the protests as they take place across Hong Kong.


Mary Hui (@maryhui) brings valuable insight into the protest coverage with her explanations behind the Cantonese used by protesters. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hui is able to highlight the nuances in the language. She also live tweets from protest sites across the city. Hui has more than 13,000 Twitter followers.


Antony Dapiran (@antd) is a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of the book City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong. He offers a deeper-dive into the protests with threads including observations on how protesters neutralise tear gas, and the artwork emerging from online satirists.


Isabella Steger (@stegersaurus), deputy Asia bureau chief for Quartz, offers a mix of live reporting, commentary and observational humour. She has been particularly eloquent in her critiques of the op-eds of overseas writers commenting on the politics behind the Hong Kong protests.

Seeking the truth of the matter

Rachel Blundy, Fact-check Editor for AFP in Hong Kong

We’ve seen a wave of disinformation about the Hong Kong protests since the beginning of June, when mass demonstrations were held against the now withdrawn extradition bill.

AFP’s Hong Kong fact check reporter and editors have examined hundreds of misleading and false posts on platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo and WeChat. Some of these posts have been shared tens of thousands of times and some videos receive millions of views. It’s concerning to see how quickly misinformation can spread, but it also helps us to understand what people are reading about the protests on social media platforms.

In general, we see more misinformation being promoted on platforms such as Facebook by pro-Beijing and pro-government and pro-police groups. Many of these groups have tens of thousands of members, mainly sharing information in traditional Chinese language posts. Misleading or false content is sometimes disseminated across multiple groups, sometimes deliberately.

But we also see a considerable amount of misinformation being shared by the pro-protester side. And sometimes I’ve noticed those on the pro-protester side are opting to share misinformation on encrypted apps such as Telegram, rather than on open social media platforms. As the protests have continued, the volume of misinformation on social media about the situation in Hong Kong has certainly increased.

We focus on debunking false social media posts which include photos and videos which we can verify comprehensively, for example by geolocating them, finding previous examples of them online in the correct context, or speaking to witnesses and officials. We have sometimes seen footage and photos of incidents in Malaysia, Taiwan or mainland China being misrepresented to suggest they show Hong Kong. We can debunk these kinds of posts very comprehensively and visually on our fact check blog.

We often use reverse image searches to check whether a photo or video has appeared online previously. We used this method to analyse a video of PLA tanks travelling through Hong Kong shared on Twitter and Facebook in July 2019. A reverse image search shows the video has been online since at least 2012. This proves it is not a new video of a recent incident. We found corroborating local media reports from the time which stated the video shows a “normal and necessary” troop rotation in June 2012, and by consulting Google Street View we confirmed the video shows a junction next to Jordan MTR station.

Flowers were left at the Prince Edward MTR station after August 31 Flowers were left at the Prince Edward MTR station after August 31

We often use reverse image searches to check whether a photo or video has appeared online previously. We used this method to analyse a video of PLA tanks travelling through Hong Kong shared on Twitter and Facebook in July 2019. A reverse image search shows the video has been online since at least 2012. This proves it is not a new video of a recent incident. We found corroborating local media reports from the time which stated the video shows a “normal and necessary” troop rotation in June 2012, and by consulting Google Street View we confirmed the video shows a junction next to Jordan MTR station.

Rachel Blundy Rachel Blundy

We have also seen an increasing number of “conspiracy theories” being circulated about the protests, for example the accusation that protesters are being paid to participate in demonstrations, or that CIA officers have infiltrated protest groups. We have not seen any evidence to support these kinds of claims, but it is very difficult to comprehensively debunk such allegations in a fact-check report. We prefer not to amplify these kinds of unsubstantiated rumours.

Most recently, we have analysed rumours that protesters died at Prince Edward MTR station after violent arrests on August 31. We debunked claims that two letters about recent student deaths at local secondary schools were evidence of protester deaths; the schools concerned told AFP that the student deaths were unrelated to the protests  – one of the students had died the day before the Prince Edward incident.

As fact-checkers, we also work with AFP’s news reporters and video teams to verify the accuracy of videos and photos shared online, for example footage of police brutality during the protests.

‘He said, she said isn’t good enough’

Eric Cheung is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong with an interest in geopolitical and social stories. His work has appeared in CNN International, The Guardian, Reuters, South China Morning Post and others

Since June, journalists in Hong Kong have been faced with the challenge of covering the biggest story since the city’s handover.

And it has not been an easy job – we have responded to spontaneous protests across the city, putting ourselves in harm’s way on the front lines as protesters engage in running battles with the police.

It is precisely at times like this that the role of the media is highlighted in public debate. Our words and images have, on many occasions, proven to be critical in revealing the truth amidst the cloud of misinformation.

‘We should be more active in fact-checking rumours and claims’ ‘We should be more active in fact-checking rumours and claims’

Our reporting has not only updated the public on the latest events on the ground, but also provided the “first draft of history” as the world watches with anxiety. One challenge, especially for local reporters, has been the need to remain independent, but not detached, in reporting the story. I am a staunch defender of classic journalism principles – we should always be fair, impartial, and accurate – as this is what makes us trustworthy. But that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to falsehoods.

Eric Cheung Eric Cheung

I believe it is not the job of the media to repeat what different stakeholders have to say. The “he said, she said” style of reporting is simply not enough, given that a large amount of rumours are being circulated every day.

Instead, we should be more active in fact-checking rumours and claims. If we find that someone is not telling the truth, we should call them out while providing context for our readers. Only that will allow us to serve as an independent monitor of power, and provide a useful platform for public discussion.


‘I’ve arrived where I started’

Violet Law has been reporting on the protests for Al Jazeera English and occasionally for The Times of London

I still remember there was a time – actually for the better part of the past decade – when Hong Kong was quiet, and even the hottest news of the day seemed like a tempest in a teapot. Not fit to print, or even to brief my editors at the mothership.

Violet Law. Photo by Kerri Cohen Photography Violet Law. Photo by Kerri Cohen Photography

A small village few people had ever heard of was being bulldozed to make way for the high-speed rail. Funding for northwestern New Territories development plans were meeting vocal opposition. Little-known returning officers barred popular candidates from running.

Who would’ve thought all these teapot tempests would brew into the political storm we’ve been chasing for the past few months?

For me, covering Hong Kong wasn’t supposed to be foreign reporting. I grew up here after all, before coming of age in America and then willing myself into journalism there.

I returned for the China story. Hong Kong was supposed to be a sideshow, or so I thought. 

Explaining the forces driving the anti-extradition bill protest movement to my readers, I’ve come to find, has been like solving “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Only now do I realise I know so little about the historical and geopolitical factors that have shaped Hong Kong, especially when I’m seeing history in the making.

And as I’m writing the best “first draft” I can manage, my T.S. Eliot Little
epiphany rings so true:

I’ve arrived where I started.

And know Hong Kong for the first time.


The Masked Kiss

James Pomfret is Reuters Chief Correspondent South China / Deputy Bureau Chief, Hong Kong

It was a fleeting moment on the night of August 11 as we ran from the men in blue and green with their guns and truncheons. The black-masks streamed down into an MTR station amid the heat, tumult and acrid swirl of tear gas lingering on sweat-soaked clothes. An underground train pulled into the station with a burst of light and silver. It filled with protesters, then drew away, speeding into a dark tunnel like a freedom express.

‘In that kiss we were all reminded of a shared humanity’. Photo: James Pomfret ‘In that kiss we were all reminded of a shared humanity’. Photo: James Pomfret

For a while now, I’ve been trying to photograph birds in wild places, striving to capture those elusive flashes of beauty between earth and sky. As a journalist covering the protests, such escapades into nature offered a counterpoint of serenity and kept me sane. By focusing my lens on our city’s rich birdlife across mangroves, mudflats, forests, grasslands and mountains, I learnt hard lessons in photographic abstraction. Blurred leaf, bare branch, empty sky became my constant motifs.

Afterwards, when I tilted the lens towards our strife-torn urbanscapes, I discovered something strange. People seemed to move more slowly, as though underwater.

That evening, as the protesters disembarked and clamoured on the platform in Prince Edward station, there amid the chaos came a sliver of stillness between the massed bodies. I saw a young masked couple lean towards one another. Time froze. Reflexively, I lifted the viewfinder to my right eye, and squeezed down with my right index finger, knowing as I pressed that this was the moment I’d been waiting for without knowing how or why.

The masked young man leans down to the young woman, herself leaning upwards, as their slender arms hold one another’s faces, eyes locked, lips separated only by the dark membrane of their masks.

This kiss would take wing, out of the mouth of the underground, up over the skyscrapers and beyond the granite visage of Lion Rock, to soar into the night skies.

The violence has been unrelenting, the politics intractable, the divisions deep, but in that kiss we were all reminded of a shared humanity, and an enduring hope in our city of sadness.

Only love can defeat injustice. It is ultimately love for a place, for a cause, for another, that helps muster our courage to strive for a better tomorrow.

There is a place in our hearts, our hills, our harbour, our high-rises that can never be violated. A quiet refuge that lingers.

Hong Kong remains a reservoir of freedom, and this freedom, like love, cannot be vanquished.

‘Hongkongers help their neighbour first’

Casey Quackenbush is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist, formerly with TIME now covering the protests primarily for Al Jazeera and The Washington Post

When I walked out of the Admiralty MTR exit B, my lips and eyes immediately stung. Hundreds of people were spilling onto Tamar Street from Harcourt Road. People tossed inhalers through the crowd and medics flushed people’s eyes with saline. After I had gone into the crowd, tear gas canisters popped and a sea of arms waved through the thoroughfare. People tried to run, but the highway was too packed.

Casey Quackenbush Casey Quackenbush

This was June 12. I was terrified then. But given everything that has happened since, it doesn’t feel all that remarkable anymore. After 17 weeks, most protests have blurred together into one big plume of tear gas. But what I remember most at the end of another long weekend are the people.

There are the ones who made me laugh. The video of the couple bumbling to kiss wearing gas masks, or the old man who walked through the streets with a vacuum cleaner to try and suck out the tear gas. The protester who trailed riot police blasting Glory to Hong Kong from his bike.

There are the ones who made me sad. After a couple had been detained and searched by police on Ice House Street, a woman was released and ran into the arms of her boyfriend, kissing and crying. Just this weekend, a video of a man with a mental disability being searched and harassed by police deeply upset me.

And then there are the ones who helped me. The girl who turned around to toss me a bottle of saline when the cops came charging. The guy who, even as the tear gas started coming, held my backpack as I struggled to retrieve my gas mask. The countless times protesters have offered me water or protective gear.

Even in these moments of panic and fear, I never cease to be touched by Hongkongers. Their humanity, their quirkiness, their altruism. Even when the crowd reaches the roadside fences, as happened on June 12, Hongkongers help their neighbour to jump first.

Watching from 12 hours behind

Rob Gerhardt is a freelance photographer. His work has covered human and civil rights, religion and refugees in Asia and the United States. Publications including The Diplomat and The Guardian have featured his work, and his photos are in several museum and private collections.

I was sitting at my local bar in Brooklyn, reading the day’s news, when I saw it: a photograph of a single outstretched arm, hand clenched in a fist, taken from above while a mass of protesters marched below, photographed by Vincent Yu. It made me think of Josef Koudelka’s photograph from the Prague Spring in 1968 of his outstretched hand with his watch looking down on an empty square. All I could think in that moment was that I hoped things in Hong Kong would end differently than they had in Prague.

Rob Gerhardt Rob Gerhardt

My first trip to Asia was in 2006, when I went to the Thailand-Myanmar border to photograph the Karen refugees and their lives in the wake of the war they have been fighting against the Myanmar military junta. My work in Hong Kong has focused on the distinction between the city’s business-focused daylight hours and the seedier side that comes out after dark.

And now the city is international news. The photographs are of a city at war with itself. Of a population that has had enough with the state of how things are, fighting against an adversary as equally compelled to stop them and maintain the status quo. It is all in the scenes captured by Lam Yik Fei, Adam Ferguson, May James and Tsuen Wan. Their photographs show Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent up close and personal, with the viewer able to watch everything unfold before their eyes in graphic and poetic detail.

None of these stories are finished, and one can only guess what their outcomes will be. But the record is in the work of the photographers who are on the scene. And it is some of their work that will define these stories for the future.

Woman Smoking on a Street Corner, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo: Rob Gerhardt Woman Smoking on a Street Corner, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo: Rob Gerhardt

Human Rights Press Awards: Speaking for the voiceless

The Human Rights Press Awards are run by the FCC, Amnesty International Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Now in its 23rd year, HRPA presents 52 awards recognising outstanding journalism in the area of human rights across Asia. This year saw a record 468 entries,13 per cent up on last year. A total of 182 entries were submitted in Chinese-language, and 286 in English. The awards ceremony was held at the club on the evening of May 16. Reporting by Sue Brattle & Vicky Kung. 

The Correspondent spoke to some of the winners about their work, and what winning a Human Rights Press Award means to them:

Breaking News Writing (English)

Emily Feng of the Financial Times won a Merit for Forced Labour in Xinjiang.

Feng now works at NPR:

Emily Feng. Photo by Allison Shelley

“I’m honoured and humbled to have received this kind of recognition for my work on Xinjiang, especially since reporting on this topic has been a hard, uphill slog in difficult reporting conditions. This investigation in particular came about as I began questioning the claims made by Chinese state bodies regarding ongoing detentions of Uighur Muslims. Since then, many other talented journalists have followed suit, producing an astonishing body of investigative journalism that collectively has contributed greatly to our understanding of the contours of this state campaign.”



Investigative Feature Writing (English)

Clare Hammond, Victoria Milko and Kyaw Lin Htoon of Frontier Myanmar won a Merit for Conflict, Conscription and a Cover-up: The Killing of Six TNLA Medics. Kyaw said:

This is a first-ever award, so much appreciation to all of you. We were the only journalists who reached the scene of this incident. It’s very important for journalists to have access to places where stories are born. For a country like ours, most journalists and media outlets have many more barriers than other countries. The first barrier is the financial status of media outlets. Another is aggressive authorities, like the Burmese military, and outdated laws, such as the Unlawful Associations Act. There are a lot of human rights violations to be uncovered and discussed in-depth in Myanmar. Journalists in Myanmar, whether citizen or foreigner, are struggling. Please keep supporting journalism in Myanmar so that it can continue to survive.”

Student Writing (English)

Supriya Chhetri, Gianna Aquino, Janina Rika and Karrie Lam of MSS Messenger, Marymount Secondary School, won a Merit for Periods: Addressing a Taboo and a Need of the Underprivileged. Teacher Kitty Leung said: “Students chose the topic of their article as part of their response to the theme of Female Empowerment which was the focus of the first issue of the school magazine last year. There are not a lot of awards around that acknowledge students’ work on reporting at secondary level so it is encouraging to receive the award and an honour to be listed with top professionals in the field. I hope students will be inspired to continue writing about issues that touch on human rights.” 

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”8″ display=”basic_thumbnail”]Investigative Feature Writing (Chinese)

The Investigative Section of Apple Daily Hong Kong won a Merit for Series: Scandal of the Shatin to Central Link. In May 2018 reporter Anthony Leung began an investigation into construction scandals involving holes in concrete slabs at the Shatin-Central MTR link after receiving tip-offs from the public. He said: “When we first approached the MTR with evidence-supported questions regarding these problems, it denied there were holes, and accused us back. Later reportage revealed that the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre station has missing supporting structure and the Hung Hom station had its design altered without proper approval. Such safety problems point to loopholes in the monitoring and governance structure within giant companies in Hong Kong, like MTR. The way things are managed and checked is falling apart. We finished this investigation because citizens gave us evidence. We want them to continue doing so.”

Student Writing (Chinese)

Liu Dicksa Isabelle, Lam Sum Yi, Shen Qing and Cheung Tung of U-Beat Magazine, CUHK

won for Half a Century of Heavy Metal Pollution Gives Villagers Deformed Limbs. Four students from CUKH’s Journalism School went to Changtun, Guangxi, to report on heavy metal poisoning from a mine that has left people with blistered joints and severe disability, and their crops die. Kathy Shen Qing, who did a follow-up story, said: “The mining started in the 1950s and farmers started to notice deformities about 30 years ago. We found this case through an NGO. People often don’t have many channels to communicate their needs, especially when they don’t receive enough help from the government. Some get harassed because the authorities don’t want them to complain. But we in Hong Kong have freedom of speech and we have a responsibility to speak up for the voiceless there.”

Explanatory Feature Writing (Chinese)

Carson Qin Kuan of Initium Media won for Lawyers Dealing with Poisonous Milk Powder and Problematic Vaccines, What Are They Up To? He said: “It has been 10 years since the press covered poisonous milk powder and problematic vaccines on mainland China. Stories like this keep happening. The press covers it, people notice it for a while, then the victims get forgotten. Bringing up old incidents that are not solved forces people to think about the systemic problems that lie behind these cycles. It’s best to talk with human rights lawyers if you want to capture the root of problems. I am happy and surprised that my article was given an award because vaccine is an old topic. I am grateful that the award acknowledges the need to focus not just on the hot topics but also remember marginalised people who are forgotten.”

You can follow the Human Rights Press Awards at

Keynote speaker Maria Ressa of Rappler: ‘We need to hold the line and show the best of human nature’

Maria Ressa, co-founder and CEO of the Philippines-based news website, Rappler, was free on bail after her second arrest this year when she spoke at the awards ceremony. “Your reporting matters. Now more than ever. We need to hold the line and show the best of human nature. That is our hope for the future,” she told an audience that knew only too well what she meant.

Maria Ressa speaks at the Human Rights Press Awards 2019. Photo: FCC Maria Ressa speaks at the Human Rights Press Awards 2019. Photo: FCC

Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, freed from jail just a week before the ceremony, won the award for Best Investigative Feature Writing along with colleagues. They had spent 511 days behind bars for allegedly exposing “state secrets” in the course of reporting Myanmar Burning, a damning investigation into the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys by security forces and armed Buddhist civilians.

Even though they were not at the ceremony, the spirit of their work and sacrifice was. Ressa said: “Even though it is difficult to work as a journalist now, there is no better time to be a journalist, because it matters.”

FCC President Florence de Changy, introducing Ressa, said: “As Asia is experiencing less freedoms all round, and several governments do not uphold human rights, the reporting of human rights abuses is all the more important.”

Simon Gardner of Reuters accepts the Investigative Feature Writing (English) Award on behalf of freed prisoners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues. Photo: FCC Simon Gardner of Reuters accepts the Investigative Feature Writing (English) Award on behalf of freed prisoners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues. Photo: FCC



Enemies of the People? FCC Journalism Conference explores how industry is regarded

This year’s journalism conference brought together editors and correspondents from around the region under the title Enemy of the People? The Dangers of Being a Journalist in 2019. Eleven panels and workshops looked into this and other topics, under the guidance of conference convenor Enda Curran and his team.

Speakers included conflict zone photographer Nicole Tung and Emily Steel, who kicked off the #MeToo movement with her reporting of sexual harassment for The New York Times.

Online threats and security tips, press freedom in Hong Kong, and dangers for journalists in Asia all sparked lively Q&As, alongside workshops on how to get paid what you’re worth and how to use your phone to capture news footage, among others.

FCC President Florence de Changy announced the launch of the Clare Hollingworth Fellowship, named after the late journalist and long-time FCC member, offering free Club membership and mentoring for young journalists or those training to become journalists.

Reporting Team: Sue Brattle, Christy Choi, Morgan M. Davis, Jenni Marsh

Photographs: Sarah Graham/FCC

Sketches: Andreas von Buddenbrook

Keynote Address: Insights From a Conflict Zone Photographer

Hong Kong-born war photographer Nicole Tung kicked off the conference with a powerful reflection on the challenges facing journalists in conflict zones in 2019.

Keynote speaker, war photographer Nicole Tung. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Keynote speaker, war photographer Nicole Tung. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

In Syria, the biggest threat was not the bombs, she revealed. It’s the paranoia of being kidnapped: the constant feeling that someone could be surveilling you.

Tung graduated from international school in Hong Kong with a desire to travel. That urge and her camera took her to the Arab Springs of Egypt then Libya, which she said were a “baptism of fire.” She then wound up in Syria with American journalist James Foley, who was later kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. She said winning the 2018 James Foley Award for Conflict Reporting, named after her friend, made her feel “proud to continue the work he and others did.”

However, Tung said that her experience at the frontline had taught her that “no story is worth your life” – and that the perception of journalists in war zones has changed.

“In the 80s and 90s it was different,” she said. There was an understanding that journalists were meant to be “neutral mouthpieces”. Now, journalists are targets who authoritarian governments want to stop spreading information.

As a result, Tung said it was increasingly important to make sure our digital devices are clean – and that foreign journalists protect local reporters and fixers. When asked what her next project would be, Tung joked: “That’s a question that freelancers never have the answer to.”

Jenni Marsh

Opening Panel – Press Freedom and Dangers for Journalists in Asia

For Patricia Evangelista war is personal. That’s because the war she’s covering is the one in her home country: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, during which so far 27,000 people have died.

As Rappler, the news outlet Evangelista works for, documents the destruction waged by Duterte – who campaigned on the promise he would kill 100,000 criminals – it has become public enemy number one. “I live where I work. It’s hard,” said Evangelista. “Everyone who speaks to me is at risk of being killed the next day.”

Stevo Stephen, left, and Patricia Evangelista. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Stevo Stephen, left, and Patricia Evangelista. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

CNN’s Will Ripley has become the network’s de facto North Korea correspondent. He described how on his first visit to the hermit kingdom he got a rare chance to interview three Americans being held there.

Ripley admitted he was so nervous for his own safety during the interview that he “didn’t have as much compassion as I needed to have” for the prisoners. Having since been detained for 36 hours in a North Korean jail “for one innocent iPhone photo”, Ripley is keenly aware of the dangers.

Meanwhile, American journalist Kevin Sites shared his experience about travelling to every war in the world in one year for Yahoo! News to show “the human effect of war” – an objective that came up throughout the conference. And risk manager for Dow Jones Stevo Stephen stressed the importance of keeping journalists – whether freelance or staff – safe in conflict zones through panic buttons on mobile phones, by getting the right visas, and paying for hostile training courses.

L-R: Stevo Stephen, Patricia Evangelista, Eric Wishart, Nicole Tung, Will Ripley and Kevin Sites. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Stevo Stephen, Patricia Evangelista, Eric Wishart, Nicole Tung, Will Ripley and Kevin Sites. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

There was a question at the end of the talk that set the room a-twittering. “Women are more emotional,” a female attendee said, asking Tung: “How do you cope with being a woman in war?” The audience laughed.

But from this not-so-well phrased question came responses that captured the perhaps unintended theme of this panel: The role emotion has to play in news coverage.

Evangelista put it most poignantly: “The moment we look at a dead body and say that’s no. 2, that’s no. 3, that’s no. 4, that’s the problem. Not that we’re male or female. I’m human first, a reporter second. If I cannot feel… then I cannot expect the person reading or watching to care. I know we have to pretend to be fearless, but I am afraid every day.”

There was solidarity from the men on the panel. Sites joked that he and CNN’s Ripley were probably the most emotional people on the panel, and AFP’s Eric Wishart admitted he had to watch Nicole Tung’s introductory video 10 times before he could watch it without crying.

Sites also called for more solidarity within the profession. “One of the things journalists haven’t been very good about is standing up for each other.”

Christy Choi and Jenni Marsh

Cultural Journalism: How Best to Cover Asian Culture and Beyond, And Avoid the Pitfalls

Rule Number One for working in Asia, be able to speak three languages. They are the best tool for digging deep into stories and finding creative ways to tell them, a skill that is increasingly necessary in China if you want to keep your sources out of trouble. Hard-hitting advice from Amy Qin, China Correspondent of The New York Times, and her fellow panelists agreed that reporting on music, film, art, TV and theatre often involves touching on politics or economics.

L-R: Enid Tsui, Amy Qin, Kurt Lin, Abid Rahman and Vivienne Chow. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Enid Tsui, Amy Qin, Kurt Lin, Abid Rahman and Vivienne Chow. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

“Visual art doesn’t attract huge audiences so you can slip under the radar,” said Enid Tsui, Senior Culture Writer at the SCMP.” But in the art world everyone has to speak English, a fact that mystifies Tsui. Kurt Lin, Senior Multimedia Producer for
’s Morning Studio, said: “I speak Mandarin, Cantonese and English so get to cover so many more stories because I can talk to local people. There is a need to employ more bi-lingual staff here.”

Another vital skill is being able to sell your story, said Vivienne Chow, founder of the Cultural Journalism Campus. “At the end of the day, the editor will ask: Who cares? We have to persuade people that culture matters. If you’re writing for a mainstream publication, you have to make your stories relevant to the general reader.”

Digital media means there are many more ways of reporting on culture, so this is “an exciting time for experimentation”, Tsui said. However, stories that end up going global, such as the #MeToo movement, don’t always spread rapidly. “You have to evaluate, is something important for your audience,” said Abid Rahman, International Digital Editor at The Hollywood Reporter. “The movement crippled Hollywood for months from October 2017, but it didn’t filter down to some other countries for some time.”

Sue Brattle

Workshop: Covering Health and Science Journalism

In 1988, The Lancet medical journal published a paper linking the MMR jab (measles, mumps, rubella) to instances of autism and the world went mad. Later found to be based on just 12 case studies and widely disputed, it still makes medical reporters shake in their boots. Deborah Cohen, BBC Radio Science Editor, said: “Whatever is published in reputable journals, we have to be very skeptical. The BBC got this wrong, as did many others.”

So, check who has funded a paper; Is there a vested interest in its findings? And stand back and wait to do your own fact-checking, don’t rush with the herd into publishing errors and half-truths. Cohen added: “We are translators of science for the public; we have to get it right.” Panelists suggested taking online courses to keep up-to-date, build an army of experts around you but be sceptical about what they tell you, and constantly read papers/journals etc being published.

L-R: Deborah Cohen, Thomas Abraham, Preetika Rana and Richard Macauley. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Deborah Cohen, Thomas Abraham, Preetika Rana and Richard Macauley. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Sometimes, when a science or health story becomes huge, it is taken away from specialist reporters and given to mainstream presenters and writers. That proves difficult for science specialists, as they don’t always want to share their sources but want to ensure the story is reported accurately.

Thomas Abraham, author of Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication, said: “Second-day stories are important. You can get as much new information as there was in Day One’s press release. Stay away from people who are trying to tell you something. Throw away all press releases. Everyone has got them. And nothing happens in isolation, there is always a context. It is the story that becomes an outrage, not the science, because that is how us humans react.”

Preetika Rana, Asia Corporate Reporter, The Wall Street Journal, said: “If the story is already out, you need to put accuracy before speed.”

Sue Brattle

Workshop: Mobile Video Storytelling Tools & Techniques to Produce High Quality Content

This workshop was packed with advice – and the realisation dawned that taking selfies is just about the best training you could have given yourself for filming news video footage on your phone. Aleksander Solum, Senior Video Journalist at Reuters Video News, said: “Most people watch news as much on their phone as on their TV so we are learning how we can use our phones for breaking news.” Reuters filmed the 2018 rescue of a junior football team from a Thai cave on mobile phones for 4/5 hours before other equipment arrived, Solum said.

L-R: Jarrod Watt, Diana Jou, Zela Chin, Aleksander Solum and Lisa Yuriko Thomas. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Jarrod Watt, Diana Jou, Zela Chin, Aleksander Solum and Lisa Yuriko Thomas. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

He added the kit you need to carry: A mobile phone, mobile wi-fi (stored in a waterproof bag), battery pack, microphone, gaffer tape and a selfie stick.

Diana Jou, freelance videographer and photographer, stressed the importance of planning your video shoot. “Before you shoot, ask what is your story? Explain it to yourself in one sentence. Is it visual? Is it worth taking? Lay down a structure on paper. Chose voiceover, or words on the screen. Write down the beginning, middle and end.”

The massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand (eight days before the conference) which the shooter showed on Facebook Live before Facebook shut it down concerned Jarrod Watt, Senior Specialist Digital Editor at SCMP. He said: “It will be a debate I’ve been waiting three years for.”

Sue Brattle

Hong Kong Press Freedom – The Challenges Facing Local Journalists

Hong Kong’s press freedom gained global attention last year, after Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet was forced to leave the city. For local journalists, a contentious relationship with the Hong Kong government was nothing new.

“Among working journalists, there’s still a strong commitment for freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” said Chris Yeung, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and chief writer at Citizen/News. But fears of government backlash have led to self-censorship by many local journalists over the years. “Reporters have to make sure their reports are not seen as political advocacy,” he said.

Mary Hui, left, and Kevin Lau. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Mary Hui, left, and Kevin Lau. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Mary Hui, a young freelance journalist, agreed that self-censorship is a harsh reality for many. After Mallet’s expulsion from Hong Kong, Hui was prepared to write something about press freedom in Hong Kong, but her friends and family talked her out of it, questioning if she wanted to draw such attention to herself so early in her career. For journalists like Kevin Lau Chun-to of Ming Pao Group, the cost of reporting in Hong Kong can be high. Lau suffered a brutal knife attack in 2014 that left him in hospital for months, and in physical therapy until just recently.

While such attacks on journalists in the city are rare, they are real enough to many parents that they will discourage their children from pursuing careers as journalists, said Lau, telling the story of a young girl who was torn about becoming a reporter. “When one student struggles for a whole year about whether or not to go into journalism, there are many more stories about giving up,” he said.

Yeung summed up the state of Hong Kong’s press freedom as “depressing”. “Unfortunately, we can’t see a major change in political weather in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Morgan M. Davis

How to Not Get Sued

At some point during their career, a journalist is likely to print something defamatory. With or without the backing of their publication they need to be prepared for a potential lawsuit. But as laws differ globally, understanding the basics of a suit and where the burden of truth lies can be complicated.

For Hong Kong, press laws are largely in line with the UK, something that can prove surprising to U.S. journalists. Where the U.S. can rely on explicit laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, to aid reporters, Hong Kong exists in more of a grey area.

Nan-Hie In, left, and Cliff Buddle. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Nan-Hie In, left, and Cliff Buddle. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Unfortunately for defamation laws, the ambiguity can come at a price for journalists. “When it comes to defamation laws it’s not very friendly to journalists,” said Cliff Buddle, senior editor at South China Morning Post.

Buddle, in his unofficial role as SCMP’s legal eagle, regularly works with journalists and editors to assess the risk involved in printing certain information. While many reporters want to defend a story with “but it’s true”, defamation laws in Hong Kong put the burden of proof on the journalist, said Buddle. “Libel laws in Hong Kong favour the wealthy,” he said, adding that the risks for printing something defamatory are high.

The risk of legal action shouldn’t scare journalists away from a story, but they need to be responsible in their reporting, and be prepared to produce notes, recordings and other information should their reporting be brought into question. Hong Kong barrister Queenie Lau pointed out a handful of different defences a journalist can rely on in court, using facts and proving substantial truth to battle a lawsuit.

“It should be a question of ‘How do we get this in and make it as safe as possible?’” said Buddle of pre-publication discussions. “The question of balance is an important one.”

Morgan M. Davis

A Conversation With Emily Steel

The #MeToo movement has rocked the world in the last 18 months, putting a spotlight on sexual assault and harassment, and taking down powerful men in its wake. Behind the movement have been journalists, diligently reporting tales of harassment and the shocking numbers of allegations and lawsuits that have long been swept under the rug. Emily Steel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from The New York Times, shared her experiences reporting on U.S. television host Bill O’Reilly and the endemic harassment found at Fox News.

For Steel, the story started with former anchor Gretchen Carlson’s allegations of harassment against then Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Carlson’s suit led to Steel and the NYT’s pursuit of other such stories, building on documents and data to share personal stories from women who faced similar problems at Fox.

Mallika Kapur, left, and Emily Steel. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Mallika Kapur, left, and Emily Steel. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

For Steel, getting the personal stories from O’Reilly’s victims proved to be challenging. Those who had approached Fox and settled harassment claims had signed non-disclosure agreements, blocking Steel’s reporting. Steel and her teammate had to look for other possible victims, cold calling them, knocking on doors and sending handwritten letters. “The thing that’s amazing about all of this is how we’ve seen these behaviours repeating,” said Steel. The pattern of abuse ultimately led Steel to find other O’Reilly victims that had previously not come forward.

O’Reilly had personally threatened Steel in the past, who was ready for the possibility of a lawsuit after her story broke. “Fox News really had a history of attacking reporters who had written critically about Fox,” she said. But Steel’s story touched a nerve in the American people, leading to massive backlash and the firing of O’Reilly.

Steel admitted that she was so centred on the Fox story that for a while she didn’t see how large the #MeToo movement could become. “We were so focused on these details [at Fox], we didn’t know what the bigger picture would be,” she said. But “[Me Too] is something that unleashed in the U.S. and moved globally”.

Morgan M. Davis

How To Get More of What You’re Worth

“Money is power and a reflection of what you’re worth.” That was the bold opening remark from a lively panel that saw the FCC conference reach out across the divide to – say it quietly – non-journalists.

HR Relationship Manager at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Tonia Wong Kee, reminded women to never accept the first offer they get. There’s always more cash, she said – it’s up to us to research the market and know the value of a role.

L-R: Saijal Patel, Tonia Wong Kee, Andrea Lo, Marie Swarbreck and Jodi Schneider. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Saijal Patel, Tonia Wong Kee, Andrea Lo, Marie Swarbreck and Jodi Schneider. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Meanwhile, Saijal Patel, a former correspondent and founder of Saij Elle, made the excellent point that women are too focused on their experience matching the criteria for a new job, when they should be focusing on their vision for the role. “Women think about what they’re contributing. Men think about their potential,” she said. “People hire for potential.”

Seasoned bilingual freelancer Andrea Lo revealed that she keeps a spreadsheet of who owes her what and when – and isn’t afraid to take to Twitter to shame a severely late-paying client into coughing up the cash. Marie Swarbreck, founder of FLEXImums, was all about helping women get back into the workforce after taking a break to start a family.

The main takeaway from the event was that women should look again at how they assess their worth and options.

Jenni Marsh

Workshop: Online Security Tips & Tools Every Journalist Should Know; Closing Panel – Online Threats Journalists Face in 2019

Don’t open strange text messages. Use two-factor authentication for everything. Don’t use free hotel WiFi. Use encrypted apps. Check email URLs for any suspicious misspellings. If a link in an email opens up a page asking for logins, don’t enter anything – it’s likely a phishing attack. Train all your colleagues at a newsroom to do the same – even those who don’t think their work is sensitive enough to warrant being watched. And ultimately, get your organisation to get behind security and train people in the latest measures. These were the key takeaways of the workshop.

L-R: Lokman Tsui, Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, Sue-Lin Wong and Masashi Nishihata. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Lokman Tsui, Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, Sue-Lin Wong and Masashi Nishihata. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

But even the best-laid security plans can go awry, as Sue-Lin Wong of the FT showed with her tale of chasing a story about workers who had developed lung diseases after being exposed to construction dust in Shenzhen. It was the workers themselves who accidentally let slip to the authorities in their excitement that someone was expressing interest in their story, and ultimately scuppered her reporting trip.

“As a journalist you can do all you can to prepare, but there are sometimes factors out of your control,” said Wong. Other than the threats journalists face from people who don’t want them to report, there’s now the additional threat of online harassment and threats that can transform into very real problems. It’s something that President Trump’s rhetoric inciting hatred against journalists is having an impact on and something that social media exacerbates.

L-R: Tim McLaughlin, moderator Eric Wishart, Kristie Lu Stout, and Sonny Swe. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Tim McLaughlin, moderator Eric Wishart, Kristie Lu Stout, and Sonny Swe. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

The audience heard from freelance journalist Rana Ayyub who, since 2010, has been sent death threats, rape threats and even had her face superimposed onto pornography. She spoke of being harassed over multiple social media platforms, having her phone number and address posted online, being hospitalised for anxiety, and the additional stress that comes of being a freelancer in this situation. “You become all the more vulnerable, because you have to fend for yourself,” Ayyub said via Skype.

Sonny Swe, founder of Frontier Myanmar who spent eight years in jail, and CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout spoke of the routine harassment and threats they face both on and off screen. Swe said: “My sister is trolled. I am careful, my doors and windows are locked.” Kirstie described how she checks for exits when she’s out on a job, and said: “It’s recognising and acknowledging there is a connection, that online abuse and online hatred can take root, fester and transform into something like real-world terrorism, like we saw happen in Christchurch. That is real.”

Christy Choi


Journalist visas: Reporting on a country that won’t let you in

The Maldives has suffered a turbulent year, with a state of emergency, protests on the streets of the capital, and a hotly-contested presidential election. Riazat Butt, former Editor-in-Chief at the Maldives Independent, spent 11 months working ‘under the radar’ from hotel rooms outside the country after her work visa was refused.

Supporters of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed gather for a mass rally Supporters of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed gather for a mass rally. Photo: AFP / ADAM SIREII (Photo by ADAM SIREII / AFP)

Sometime in the afternoon of September 24, 2018, I learned that Abdulla Yameen had conceded defeat in the Maldives presidential election. I updated the Maldives Independent live blog. Then I cried. I was in a Sri Lanka hotel room and had been awake for almost two days, working through a cyber-attack lasting almost as long, to keep publishing news about an election that could lead the country towards a dictatorship or return it to democracy.

After 12 months, 11 of them not in the Maldives because my visa application was rejected, my time as editor-in-chief was over. The election result indicated a brighter future for press freedom, and gave me a chance to return to the country. But I had little desire to work there again.

I had dealt with blackmail, extortion, suspicions of money laundering, a state of emergency, funding crises, cyber-attacks, isolation and insecurity, in addition to my everyday responsibilities. I deserved a cry, I told myself.

But whatever I did attracted attention because I was female, alone and clearly not Maldivian.

I initially entered the Maldives on a 30-day tourist visa, staying with someone’s relatives to avoid putting my name on a hotel or apartment booking. My SIM was registered to someone else. I met nobody outside the workplace, bar two trusted contacts, while I was in the Maldives. My route to and from work changed every few days because newsrooms were under such scrutiny. I dressed modestly, even slipping on an abaya to cover my gym kit of t-shirt and leggings.

But whatever I did attracted attention because I was female, alone and clearly not Maldivian. The daily street harassment, noise, pollution, heat and crowds of the capital Malé, were so intense I was relieved about heading to Colombo for a short business trip.

The visa application was submitted in my absence and authorities had all the documents specified in immigration rules. The rejection came a few weeks later. It shocked me. At no stage of the recruitment process had I been warned that I might be unsuccessful, that I might have to work remotely. No reason was given for the refusal.

I had been so sure about getting a visa I had left most of my things in the Maldives. But my name had been flagged, according to a police source, and I risked being deported on arrival if I tried to get in again.

I considered marrying a Maldivian to get a visa. A reporter volunteered, but wanted a pay bump to match. I told him we didn’t have that kind of money.

I resisted calls to appeal the rejection because there was nothing to be gained by drawing attention to myself or the website. Also, as one senior NGO figure put it, it was the Maldives’ sovereign prerogative to grant or deny visas. I was not entitled to one simply because I was a journalist, I thought.

Besides, I didn’t want to become the story and there was work to be done: exposing wrongdoing, holding power to account and tackling under-reported issues.

But I didn’t know how to run a newsroom, let alone do it from thousands of miles away, and had no idea where I was supposed to go for the rest of my contract.

I flitted around Asia and even Europe, leading the team from different time zones, directing our coverage and setting the agenda.

I was pushy, single-minded and vocal as I bashed reporters into shape and sent them out on assignment. Messages pinged back and forth about who was doing what, why, how, where and when.

We ran stories on subjects considered taboo in the conservative and autocratic country – the perils of removing the hijab, recreational drug use, mental health, election rigging, unsolved murders, sexual harassment, sexual abuse – and exposed government lies about loans, statistics and development projects. Reporters revealed environmental destruction on islands, and the rifts in the opposition alliance and the trials of being a court reporter in the Maldives.

I often worked up to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and kept hearing how brilliantly I was doing and how fantastic the website looked. I was proud we were the only news website in the Maldives to come under attack during the state of emergency, although I hated not being able to publish.

Editor-in-Chief Riazat Butt during a rare meeting with her team in Colombo. Editor-in-Chief Riazat Butt during a rare meeting with her team in Colombo.

I wasn’t just working remotely, I was under the radar. There were no media appearances. There was no byline for me at the Maldives Independent and I never wrote for anyone else. I had no LinkedIn profile. Sure I tweeted about the Maldives, but I also tweeted about puppies and Brexit.

But among the successes there was frustration and exhaustion: attempting to explain what needed to be done and why — all day, every day, to reporters – or hearing they had no ideas or didn’t know what questions to ask when calling someone on a story. A lot of energy was spent getting the reporters to do the basics. The team was young and mostly inexperienced. I normally thrived in adversity but, at times, the scale of the challenge overwhelmed me.

I told people I worked in admin or that I sold stationery as I felt this would be more believable than the truth.

I also felt guilty that I wasn’t in the Maldives with the reporters. I couldn’t mentor them or help them develop. I felt I was letting them down by not being more patient, stronger, more creative and was devastated at my failure to do any of the things I had promised to do when I was hired: build the brand, get more money, hire more people, do video, graphics and interactives.

I met the team twice after my visa was rejected, once in December 2017 and then in August 2018. I didn’t see them after that, not even when I returned to the Maldives as a legitimate tourist for a holiday after I left my job and the new president had taken power.

The Maldives was a huge part of my life for 12 months. It was my life for 12 months. I knew everything about it, but didn’t share this information with other holidaymakers. They didn’t know about the extremism, the corruption, the backstabbing and cronyism, the pitiful transparency and my role in documenting all of it. I told people I worked in admin or that I sold stationery as I felt this would be more believable than the truth.

As the seaplane puttered over the Indian Ocean on my last departure I could name the islands coming into view, the lawmakers who represented them in parliament, the tycoons who owned the swanky resorts fanning across the water.

While this job is one of the most rewarding I’ve had in my career, it has also been one of the most bizarre. I had been reporting on a country I wasn’t allowed into and, when I was allowed in, I was no longer reporting on it.

Riazat Butt has worked at The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and AFP. She has lived in the Gulf, Asia and travelled widely on assignment. She was Editor-in-Chief at the Maldives Independent from September 2017 until October 2018.


Last year the Maldives ranked 120 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

Rights groups criticised Abdulla Yameen, who was president from 2013 until 2018, for leading a crackdown on free speech that saw the country slide down the RSF index during his time in office.

An anti-defamation law and pro-government media watchdogs engendered a hostile reporting climate. Journalists said they were forced to practise self-censorship to avoid crippling fines and lawsuits.

Reporters were also threatened, imprisoned, assaulted, even fleeing the country for their safety while Yameen was in power.

Maldives Independent reporter Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in 2014. The two men charged over his disappearance were acquitted last August and Rilwan remains missing.

Background checks, introduced in 2016 after an Al Jazeera exposé of massive state corruption, meant foreign journalists had to submit extensive documentation as part of their visa application, including a medical report, police certificate, two-year travel history, and bank statements.

The Ministry of Home Affairs barred foreigners from being editors of Maldivian news outlets. It also said only degree holders could be editors, but this regulation was later changed after it was pointed out that just several hundred people from the general population were graduates.

Yameen lost the September 2018 presidential election. The anti-defamation law was repealed in November.

Heading into harm’s way: How news organisations prepare staff for covering war zones

News organisations are getting better at preparing journalists, photographers and support staff for working in dangerous situations and gone are the days when advice stopped at “Keep clear of windows”. Eric Wishart reports.

Life in Kabul is punctuated by bombings, meaning journalists need to be trained for working in hostile environments. Life in Kabul is punctuated by bombings, meaning journalists need to be trained for working in hostile environments.

When ISIS murdered American journalist James Foley in 2014 his death not only triggered revulsion in newsrooms, it also provoked serious soul-searching.

The horrific video of his killing showed how the risks faced by journalists had changed and raised the key question: What exactly is the duty of care that a news organisation owes to its reporters, including freelance contributors?

James Foley was filing for my news agency Agence France-Presse and the online U.S. outlet GlobalPost when he was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012.

AFP stopped sending its foreign staff to cover rebel-held areas of Syria the following August, and in the wake of Foley’s death made an important decision – it would no longer accept content from foreign stringers working in areas judged too dangerous for its own staff.

It is a rule that is now enshrined in the new AFP ethics code that I drew up in 2016, and we make no exceptions – even if we are offered a world exclusive from a freelance reporter in the field.

American journalist James Foley. American journalist James Foley in Aleppo.

Not all freelances agreed with the decision, saying that it was not up to AFP to decide where and how they should work. But as a former AFP editor-in-chief who has sent dozens of reporters into dangerous situations and seen too many colleagues killed or injured, I believe it was the right decision.

If a major news organisation like AFP – with all its experience of conflict reporting and all its resources – decides that an area is too dangerous to cover, then you should not be there, and we will not encourage you to take that risk.

Freelance journalists, often working on shoestring budgets, are particularly vulnerable in war zones where they often do not have the same safety backup enjoyed by staff employed by the big news outlets.

Following the murders of James Foley and Steve Sotloff in Syria, a coalition of news outlets and journalism organisations signed up to a code of safety standards for freelancers under the umbrella of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong, which has long been a defender of freedom of the press, is one of the signatories.

AFP's Kabul Bureau Chief, Allison Jackson. AFP’s Kabul Bureau Chief, Allison Jackson.

One of the guiding principles is that when it comes to safety, all categories of staff – foreign, local or freelance – should receive the same protection. And above all, there is one basic principle we all must remember – no story is worth dying for.

So, what are the responsibilities of news organisations towards staff in hostile environments?

Dr Courtney C. Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that these responsibilities include “ensuring they are properly trained and resourced, have done a risk assessment and planned accordingly, and take precautions to ensure the physical and digital security of their journalists”.

In an email reply to questions from The Correspondent, she said that the risks to journalists have evolved.

“Given the centrality of the internet and mobile devices to contemporary journalism, journalists need to consider how to protect themselves and their sources on and offline,” she said. “Online harassment has become increasingly common, and many women and minority journalists in particular say that this is now a routine part of their jobs. There is also increasing awareness about trauma and needing to address this as part of a holistic approach to journalist safety.”

She added that the vast majority of journalists killed and imprisoned around the world are local journalists.

There are of course more local than international journalists, which means inevitably that the statistics will be higher. But autocratic governments and other bad actors also think they can act with impunity when it comes to local journalists, while attacking international staff can provoke a diplomatic backlash that they would rather avoid.

The recent jailing of the Burmese Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for seven years is a case in point, although they have received widespread international support. AFP has seen its local journalists in Afghanistan targeted in the past four years, with reporter Sardar Ahmad and his wife and two of his children killed by the Taliban in April 2014, chief photographer Shah Marai killed along with eight other journalists in a twin bomb attack in Kabul in April 2018, and office driver Mohammad Akhtar killed in a suicide bombing at the entrance to Kabul’s international airport, along with more than 20 other people, on his way to work.

AFP’s Asia-Pacific director Philippe Massonnet says that all journalists sent to conflict zones undergo training designed for the kinds of risks they will face.

“Local journalists and our regular stringers undergo this training, with photographers and video journalists given priority because they are the most exposed,” he said.

“It is also important to underline that hostile environment training should not just be for journalists – in some circumstances drivers and office managers should also be trained.”

Protective gear is deployed in all the agency’s bureaux depending on their profiles. All regular stringers are provided with protective gear and covered by insurance.

“The main challenge is not so much in providing the equipment but in ensuring that reporters wear their protective vests and helmets – some refuse to wear them or forget to take them with them when they go out on jobs.

“Bureau chiefs and news editors have the responsibility of applying the rules and protocols, but unfortunately some journalists are still too imprudent.”

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