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The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, Membership Survey on Press Freedom

In an effort to gauge the confidence of our members in the media environment in Hong Kong since the introduction of the National Security Law, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) has conducted a survey of correspondent and journalist members on a wide range of issues related to press freedom.

The results revealed widespread uncertainty among members over what the media is and is not allowed to report on since the implementation of the National Security Law in June 2020, and concern over the further erosion of press freedom with the possible introduction of a “fake news” law in Hong Kong. 

“This is the first time we’ve conducted a survey like this of our correspondent and journalist members,” FCC President Keith Richburg said. “There’s been a lot of talk and anecdotal evidence about concerns over the state of press freedom in Hong Kong, so we thought it would be helpful to try to quantify the extent of those concerns.”

The vast majority of respondents reported an overall deterioration in the working environment for journalists, noting in particular the unwillingness of sources to be quoted and the need for reporters to self-censor their writing or delete images. 

The survey was conducted from late August to late October 2021. While the FCC has numerous members working in non-media sectors, for this survey we chose only to contact the club’s correspondent and journalist members. We received 99 responses–70 from correspondent members (club members working for foreign media) and 29 from journalist members (those working for local media)–reflecting a response rate of about 25%. All responses were anonymous.

In terms of the general working environment for journalists, 84% said that the situation had deteriorated since the introduction of the National Security Law. While 15% said there had been no change, one respondent said the situation had actually changed for the better. 

One respondent said:

In many ways it has become worse than the mainland because nobody knows what the red lines are and there is real fear that previous coverage could be scrutinised. Self-censorship and the drying up of sources is another result of the NSL.

Another noted:

It has definitely changed for the worse. When I first arrived, Hong Kong was a much freer society — people were open to speaking, no topic within reason was off limits, and there were no real concerns about what we could publish or whether we could protect sources who spoke to us. Now, many people are reluctant or refuse to talk on sensitive subjects, and our organization — especially after the raids on Apple Daily — is much more cautious about data security and the ability to protect sources.

A total of 86% of respondents said sources were now less willing to talk about sensitive issues, while 14% reported no change. One respondent revealed:

Many of my sources are now in jail. Some have fled abroad. Others now refuse to comment to foreign media, based on advice from their lawyers or out of — very justifiable — fear that speaking to a foreign journalist could aid a prosecutor’s case against them under the National Security Law. Many people, even those abroad who might have family in Hong Kong, are now insisting on anonymity. 

Another stated simply:

Fallen off a cliff. Former sources happy to go on the record now are only off the record or won’t talk at all.

However, another respondent countered:

I think sources are still happy to talk. They might say something is a “bit political” when talking but I haven’t noticed people holding back.

A smaller, but still significant, number of members said they were self-censoring or had experienced censorship within their organization. Asked “To what extent have you self-censored your writing, either in content or by simply avoiding covering certain subjects?” 44% replied not at all, 40% said they had slightly self-censored, and 16% had self-censored to a considerable degree. 

One respondent said: 

There are certainly some topics that we would now have to think long and hard about covering in any detail, in particular anything to do with independence. We would also now consider publishing some of our coverage with a non-Hong Kong dateline to avoid potential legal/political jeopardy for colleagues based in the city. But otherwise we soldier on and do our job of reporting the news without fear or favour.

The majority of respondents, 56%, said they had not experienced any overt censorship by their news organization in the coverage of sensitive issues, 36% said they had seen slight censorship, while 8% had experienced considerable censorship. One respondent noted that “management doesn’t ‘officially’ discourage coverage of sensitive areas but makes it very difficult to do so.”

One member pointed out:

Censorship is a loaded word. Clearly, the NSL is something we need to take seriously and it has affected how we approach the news and express our opinions. We don’t want to break the law. At the same time, I don’t feel I have been prevented from saying what I want to about the NSL and about how Hong Kong has changed since its enactment.

One of the most significant results of the survey was the uncertainty among our members over what is and what is not a “sensitive subject” in the wake of the National Security Law. Around half of the respondents, 48%, said they were unclear about exactly where the red lines were in reporting sensitive issues. Other respondents were more confident in defining the red lines but significantly gave different responses: Some highlighted Hong Kong independence, while others focused on mainland China issues or more generally Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. 

To illustrate the uncertainty, one respondent said:

When a nurse said that one of her patients didn’t want to get the Covid vaccine in China because she didn’t think the Chinese vaccines are very good, and decided to come back to Hong Kong where she could get the BioNTech shot, I got an editor’s comment “Do you think this is a bit too political?” 

In terms of sensitive images, 48% of respondents said they were not confident in knowing what is permitted when it comes to taking photos or videos of sensitive subjects, 33% were somewhat confident, and only 19% said they were confident in knowing what images were acceptable:

I have the feeling that journalists are allowed to shoot public events even if they contain banners or slogans that breach the NSL. Likewise, media can publish them. But that can change in a second.

Many respondents agreed that the definition of what is considered sensitive is shifting all the time, thereby forcing them to exercise a greater degree of caution.

The definition of what is sensitive has broadened from the specifically political to encompass the work of civil society, the media, trade union and cultural organizations. There is no indication that this widening process is about to stop.

Going forward, there is widespread concern among the FCC’s correspondent and journalist members over the Hong Kong government’s proposal to enact a “fake news” law. In all, 76% of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the introduction of a fake news law, 15% were slightly concerned, 6% were not aware of the issue, and 3% were not concerned about the legislation. 

Several respondents noted that “fake news” laws have been created by authoritarian governments to suppress unfavourable coverage. Others said there are signs that Hong Kong authorities are willing to label anything they do not like as “fake news.” For example:

It’s already clear to me that officials in high office in Hong Kong believe that “fake news” is a label they can apply to news or commentary that they don’t like, regardless of whether it is “fake,” and that a fake news law could be used broadly against critics in the same way that they have used the National Security Law. 

Other respondents, while noting the risk of abuse by the authorities, cautioned that journalists still had a responsibility to verify information before publication and avoid over-sensationalizing issues.

The media has tremendous responsibilities, and we must be abiding by our code of conduct to stay neutral. Press Freedom does not mean that someone has the freedom to make up stories that are not facts. I am saddened by how the media has deteriorated to become storytellers instead of news reporters

The survey revealed considerable uncertainty among FCC correspondent and journalist members about the future. A significant majority of respondents said they were concerned about the possibility of arrest or prosecution from reporting or writing opinion articles – 61% were slightly concerned, 10% were very concerned, while 29% said they were not concerned about arrest or prosecution. 

I’ve published extensively and it’s ‘out there’ on the net. But with laws constantly changing and applying to old works and deeds, if someone needs a flimsy excuse to ‘get me’, they’ll probably pull up some old work that was acceptable debate/opinion when it was published and now an excuse to prosecute. 

A total of 77% of respondents said they were concerned about the possibility of digital or physical surveillance, while another 12% said they had already directly experienced surveillance. 37% of respondents had deleted images, either online or one their devices, because of security concerns, and a smaller number of reporters said they had experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting. 15% had experienced minor interference and 7% said they had encountered significant harassment or interference.

Many correspondent and journalist members have the right to permanent residency in Hong Kong and so are not directly affected by employment visa issues. That said, 29% of respondents reported that they personally, or others in their news organization, had experienced considerable delays or obstacles in obtaining employment visas or visa renewals. Another 24% said they had experienced slight delays.

Finally, we asked members if they were planning on or considering leaving Hong Kong because of concerns over press freedom. About 34% said they were considering leaving, and 12% already had plans to do so. The remaining 54% said they planned to stay. One typical response noted:

The rapidly deteriorating political environment in Hong Kong has made me consider cutting short my stay in the city. While we’re not planning an imminent departure by any means, myself and several others I know are reconsidering previous plans to stay in Hong Kong over a longer time frame, given the city we arrived in was very different than the city we currently live in. Everyone has different limits on what they will tolerate. 

Richburg, the FCC’s president, added: “We would like to conduct this kind of survey on a regular, recurring basis so we can continue to gauge the sentiment among our members who are working actively as journalists and let the results be made publicly available. We hope this survey, and any future ones, can help contribute to the ongoing discussion about the state of press freedom in Hong Kong.”

The FCC is grateful to all those members who took the time to respond to our survey.

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