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Message from the President on World Press Freedom Day

Message from the President on World Press Freedom Day
3 May 2022
As we mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, we should pause and remember the many journalists and media workers killed so far this year in Ukraine while covering the conflict and in other trouble spots including Afghanistan, Mexico, Myanmar and around the world. They sacrificed their lives for the mere act of reporting, which should never be a crime and should never cost a journalist their life.
The past year has also seen an erosion of press freedom globally, with increases in threats against journalists, the use of legal tools to target legitimate reporting, online threats and harassment against journalists, a tsunami of disinformation aimed at undermining truthful reporting, and of course censorship. Here in Hong Kong, some news outlets have been forced to close and journalists arrested because of the application of the colonial-era sedition ordinance.
What do we do now and how do we face the future?
As a press organization, we will continue to try to hold the S.A.R. government officials to their word that Hong Kong continues to enjoy press freedom. That means we will continue to speak out on issues directly impacting the media, when it is appropriate and always within the law — since the Basic Law also allows for free expression. We will issue public statements when we feel our voice can make a difference, and we may at times send private letters to government officials expressing our concerns and seeking clarification or seeking to meet.
We will continue to express our deep concerns over any type of “fake news” law in Hong Kong and how such a law might be used to hinder legitimate reporting, and to offer our expertise on the subject. We will push for journalists to have access to public records and databases. We will continue having speaking events about press freedom, to which we invite government officials to attend. And we will continue holding workshops for journalists, including on matters involving physical safety, online threats and harassment, data protection, as well as mental health and trauma.
Hong Kong authorities should be willing to accept legitimate comment and criticism without resorting to automatic claims that the FCC is somehow “interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs” or “smearing one country, two systems.” I respectfully remind them that the FCC has been in Hong Kong for 73 years, and its members include many Hong Kong natives, permanent residents and long-time residents. The FCC is Hong Kong. We are a part of the fabric of the city and adding our voice to the discussion should be welcomed, not maligned. Moreover, what makes “one country, two systems” more than just a vacant slogan is that unlike elsewhere, Hong Kong has a diversity of voices and views, and everyone is allowed to voice those within the law, and without being subjected to veiled threats, intimidation and reprisals. As George Orwell said; “Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.”
I know a few members who disagree with the decision of the FCC Board of Governors to suspend the Human Rights Press Award, even though there are clear and acknowledged concerns that continuing the Award in the current political climate would have posed a real and an immediate risk. I am thrilled the HRPA will continue in the future under a new administrator, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and new regional co-sponsors. But I’m saddened the FCC will no longer have any involvement or affiliation.
Some suggest that if you cannot speak out on every issue, then the Club should not speak on any issue. I disagree. I believe the majority of our members, as well as our friends, supporters and absentee members around the world, all understand that it is still better, indeed imperative, that we continue to speak up as forcefully as we can when we can. This means that we can continue to discharge our journalistic duties and maintain the level of civic discourse for which Hong Kong is rightly proud.
We do not plan to give up. Walking away now, when we can still try to have some impact and when we have something very much worth protecting, would be a betrayal to all those who have made great sacrifices for the profession of journalism, and for trying to seek the truth.
Keith Richburg
President

FCC Statement on the Deaths of Journalists in Ukraine

The deaths of at least four journalists covering the war in Ukraine as of this writing is a sobering reminder of the dangers all journalists face when covering conflict and trying to provide truthful, independent reporting to the world.

Ukrainian photojournalist Yevhenii Sakun was killed in an attack on the Kyiv TV Tower on March 1. American documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud was killed at a checkpoint in Irpin on March13. Irish photojournalist Pierre Zakrzewski and Ukrainian freelancer Oleksandra Kuvshynova, working for Fox News, were killed when their vehicle came under fire in Horenka. Other journalists have been injured.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong extends its condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the slain journalists, and wishes those wounded a speedy recovery. We also urge all combatants to respect the neutrality of the journalists in the field. Journalists and their newsrooms covering the war in Ukraine should exercise the utmost caution, which includes attention to the safety of their locally hired drivers, translators, freelancers and stringers, who are often the most exposed to danger during conflicts.

We also would urge news organizations not to send or rely on inexperienced journalists or freelancers who lack the proper protective equipment and hostile environment training for covering conflicts.

The FCC does not normally comment on events far from our geographic home, but many of those covering the Ukraine conflict are our friends and colleagues, some who are normally based here in Hong Kong.

Besides the clear and immediate danger of reporting from a war zone, journalists in Russia now face the threat of imprisonment from the Russian government’s new “fake news law” that criminalises truthful reporting with potential prison sentences of up to fifteen years. The FCC is deeply concerned about the implications of such a draconian law, which has led many international news outlets to withdraw staff from Russia, just as we are concerned about such laws elsewhere, and about European Union countries blocking access to state-controlled Russia Today and Sputnik.

While this conflict in Ukraine has produced a tsunami of disinformation on both sides, the FCC believes that societies are best served by a free flow of information, and that informed citizens can determine for themselves fact from falsehood. Shutting down any news outlets sets a dangerous precedent that other authoritarian regimes may use.

We recognize that disinformation swirling on the internet is a problem worldwide. We believe the best solution lies not with new laws, but with more support for legitimate news organizations engaged in truthful, fact-based reporting.

FCCC: Foreign Press Face ‘Unprecedented Hurdles’ In Covering China

Foreign journalists in China face growing threats of harassment and intimidation, while news organizations there are operating at drastically reduced staffing levels, according to an annual report on working conditions by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

“As the number of journalists forced out by the Chinese state grows, covering China is increasingly becoming an exercise in remote reporting,” according to the club’s report published Monday. “With China pulling out all the stops for the Olympic Games, the FCCC is troubled by the breakneck speed by which media freedom is declining in China.”

The full text of the report can be found here.

In November, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong published its own survey of members on press freedom in Hong Kong. That survey can be found here.

MOFA Responds to FCC Statement on Stand News

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following response to the FCC’s statement on the raid of Stand News:

The spokesperson of the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in the HKSAR strongly disapproved and firmly rejected misleading comments of a spokesperson of the European External Action Service and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong on the law enforcement activities of the Hong Kong police, which vilified Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedom and emboldened anti-China elements in Hong Kong. The historical trend of righting the wrongs in Hong Kong is unstoppable, and all external interference will prove to be futile.

The spokesperson said that Hong Kong is a society under the rule of law where it enforces laws and regulations and prosecutes any illegal acts. The actions taken by the Hong Kong police towards the relevant organization in accordance with law and the arrest of individuals suspected of conspiring to publish seditious publications are actions of justice to safeguard national security, the rule of law and public order in Hong Kong. It is what the Hong Kong society expected and brooks no interference. Those who engage in activities that endanger national security and undermine the rule of law and public order under the cover of journalism are the black sheep tarnishing the press freedom and will be held accountable in accordance with law. Some external forces fanned the flames in haste and spoke up for anti-China forces in Hong Kong, further proving that they attempted to undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong and damage Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

The spokesperson pointed out that the Basic Law for the HKSAR and the National Security Law protect the lawful rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, including freedom of speech and press. Since the implementation of the National Security Law, Hong Kong has returned to the right track, and the press freedom has been better protected in a more secure, stable and law-based environment. It is a fact that all the fair-minded cannot deny. Some external forces have repeatedly attacked the press freedom in Hong Kong to create the so-called “chilling effect”. Supporting the freedom of the press is just their excuse, and their true purpose is to disrupt the stable and sound-governed Hong Kong. Facts cannot be twisted and the historical trend cannot be reversed. No slander can distort the fact that Hong Kong enjoys a highly-developed media sector and press freedom, nor can it prevent Hong Kong from opening a new chapter in transforming from chaos to stability and prosperity. Nothing can stop the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The spokesperson stressed that Hong Kong is part of China and Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs. We urge some external forces to respect the facts, follow the global trend, stop undermining the rule of law in the HKSAR, stop colluding with those suspected of endangering China’s national security, and stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs under any pretext.

CPJ Report Shows 8 Journalists Jailed In Hong Kong, 50 in China

The number of journalists around the world imprisoned because of their work hit a new high this year, according to a report published Thursday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The CPJ’s report put the number of jailed reporters at 293, up from a revised total of 280 in 2020. The report lists eight journalists in Hong Kong out of a total of 50 reporters jailed in China. The number of imprisoned journalists in Myanmar surged from none last year to 26 this year following the military coup in February.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong is posting a link to the report here as part of its ongoing commitment to press freedom.

The FCC Notes the One-Year Anniversary of Haze Fan’s Detention

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong notes with concern that it has been one year since Haze Fan, a Chinese employee of Bloomberg News, was detained in Beijing on suspicion of national security law violations. To date, no information has been released about Fan’s whereabouts or her case. 

The FCC is reposting a joint statement to which it was a signatory released shortly after Fan’s detention. The FCC continues to urge Chinese authorities to release information about Fan’s detention.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Clubs and Associations of Japan, Hong Kong, Jakarta, the Philippines, South Asia, Taiwan and Thailand are very concerned to learn that Haze Fan, a Chinese employee working for Bloomberg News, has been detained in Beijing.

The FCCs stand by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in its efforts to seek an explanation on why the Chinese authorities detained Fan.

The clubs also join together in expressing alarm at reports of deteriorating conditions for journalists working for international media in China.

Fan has worked with Bloomberg since 2017. Other outlets she worked for before include Al Jazeera, CBS News, CNBC, and Thomson Reuters.

She has been missing since Monday, December 7th. Bloomberg received confirmation of her arrest on ‘suspicion of engaging in activities that jeopardize national security’ only on Thursday.

Chinese nationals perform invaluable roles in support of foreign media in China. Without their work, it would be difficult for foreign media to operate in China, and their safety is a matter of the highest concern.

Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Jakarta
Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia
Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand

Visa Denial for Sue-Lin Wong Underscores Rising Press Freedom Concerns

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, is deeply concerned that another journalist, Sue-Lin Wong of The Economist, has been denied an employment visa in Hong Kong.

This follows the denial of visas for Victor Mallet of the Financial Times in 2018, Chris Buckley of the New York Times, and Aaron Mc Nicholas of the Hong Kong Free Press last year.

The decision by the Immigration Department not to extend Sue-Lin Wong’s visa, made without explanation, further highlights the concerns raised in the FCC’s survey of correspondent and journalist members on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong published on 5 November.

The survey clearly illustrated the deteriorating working environment for journalists in Hong Kong, with visa applications emerging as a major problem. In all, 24% of respondents said they had experienced slight delays or obstacles in obtaining visas, while 29% said they had experienced considerable obstacles or delays.

The FCC has previously urged the Immigration Department, in two letters published in 2020, to provide more clarity on its procedures for issuing journalists’ employment visas. So far, we have not received a satisfactory response.

We again call on the government to provide concrete assurances that applications for employment visas and visa extensions will be handled in a timely manner with clearly-stated requirements and procedures, and that the visa process for journalists will not be politicised or weaponised.

FCC Statement on the Sentencing of American Journalist Danny Fenster in Myanmar

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong is alarmed and deeply disturbed by the harsh sentence handed down today in Myanmar to American journalist Danny Fenster. Fenster, who at the time of his arrest in May was the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, was convicted by a court in Yangon on three charges and sentenced to 11 years in jail. The court imposed the harshest possible sentences for those charges, which include an immigration offense and a violation of the unlawful associations act. 

The FCC is additionally concerned about two more serious additional charges for which Fenster is yet to stand trial. 

Since taking power in February, Myanmar’s military harshly cracked down on the media and quickly rolled back the hard fought press freedom gains made over the past decade. The offices of media organizations have been raided by security forces. Some journalists have gone into hiding or fled the country, and of more than 100 arrested journalists, dozens remain in jail for their reporting on the rapidly deteriorating situation in the country. 

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club calls on Myanmar’s government to respect and uphold its stated commitment to press freedom, and to unconditionally release Fenster and other detained journalists.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Addresses FCC Press Freedom Survey

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin responded to a question concerning the FCC’s Press Freedom Survey during the ministry’s daily press briefing on Friday. In his comments, Mr. Wang offered details about the number of overseas employees holding work visas at foreign media outlets in Hong Kong, saying the figure has increased over the last year. 

Mr. Wang’s complete remarks about the Press Freedom Survey are posted below. The full transcript of the press briefing can be found here

Bloomberg: Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong put out a report this morning, saying that nearly half of their members are considering leaving and only about half of them said they understand where the Hong Kong government’s redlines on reporting were. What is your response to the report? Do you think the government of Hong Kong should be clearer about its redlines on reporting?

Wang Wenbin: I want to point out first that the legitimate rights and interests of foreign media and journalists in Hong Kong are fully protected as long as they abide by laws and produce reporting in accordance with laws and regulations.

With regard to what you mentioned, I would like to share some numbers with you. As of April 2021, there are 628 foreign employees holding work visas working with foreign media outlets in Hong Kong, which is an increase of 98 people or 18.5 percent year-on-year. These numbers don’t lie. They are a faithful reflection of the views on and perception of Hong Kong’s socioeconomic and reporting environment of people from all walks of life including the press sector.

During the past year, Bloomberg, the agency you work with, added 55 foreign employees alone. That speaks volumes. I would like to stress that since the promulgation and implementation of the Hong Kong national security law, Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms have received better protection, and Hong Kong citizens, international investors and people working in various sectors have all witnessed a brand new Hong Kong and become more confident in its future.

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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