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‘We have fought the good fight’: Hong Kong journalists waver from attack on media

AAs the latest news program came to an end and anchors said goodbye to their online audience on January 3, Chris Yeung, the founder and lead writer of Citizen News, gathered his staff and tried to strike an optimistic note.

“Remember our very best memories”, he said, dressed in a blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a crimson sweater draped over his shoulders. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Don’t worry. Just remember the fun stuff.”

It was the day 90 largely pro-establishment lawmakers were sworn in. Last night, the five-year independent Chinese-language news channel said it would close. It justified the decision citing a deteriorating media environment and concerns for staff safety.

It was a painful decision for Yeung and his editor-in-chief, Daisy Li, to make. “If I am no longer confident enough to direct and direct my reporters, I have to take responsibility,” Li said last week. “Can we work on some ‘safe news’? I don’t even know what ‘safe news’ is.”

She added: “What has changed is not us, but the external, objective environment.” On January 4, another outlet, Mad Dog Daily, followed suit and closed with Citizen News.

Citizen News editor-in-chief Daisy Li and founder, ex-president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chris Yeung, for a press conference on Jan. 3. Photo: Alex Chan/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

The latest developments came as no surprise to those following recent events in Hong Kong’s once freewheeling media industry. An exodus of journalists and editors from the area’s acclaimed news channels, such as Cable TV and public broadcaster RTHK, have alarmed freedom of expression in the city and beyond in recent years.

Just a week ago, another Chinese-language outlet, Stand News, was forced to close after 200 police officers raided its office and detained seven current and former employees. Two former editors in chief were charged with conspiracy to publish incendiary material and were denied bail.

Stand News’ arrests came a day after Jimmy Lai, the former owner of the popular tabloid Apple Daily, and six of his former journalists faced new charges of “conspiracy to” print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce inflammatory publications”. The newspaper was forced to close last June. Amnesty International said it was “the blackest day for media freedom in Hong Kong’s recent history”.

In Asia, the erosion of press freedom has repeatedly made headlines in recent years. Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned in Myanmar since last year’s military coup. In Thailand, after anti-government protests in 2020, an emergency decree was issued to ban news that “incites fear.” And in the Philippines, the country’s most profitable broadcaster, ABS-CBN, had to close that same year. These incidents are a poignant reminder that even the most successful news media would not survive the authoritarian resurgence in the region.

In Hong Kong – once a bastion of freedom of expression on Chinese territory – the intense crackdown on independent news outlets began shortly after Beijing enacted a controversial national security law in the summer of 2020. The legislation came in for strong criticism from Western capitals, from Washington to London. However, Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam said the closure of news organizations “cannot be directly linked” to press freedom in Hong Kong. She also dismissed claims of a “horrifying effect” in the city’s media landscape.

The assault on press freedom has continued after the Apple Daily saga. A few days after the tabloids shut down last year, the city’s police chief Raymond Siu suggested that “fake news” legislation would be needed to tackle “hostility to the police”. His boss, Lam, announced a few weeks earlier that her government was working on “fake news” legislation to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies”.

Carrie Lam, the CEO of Hong Kong.
Carrie Lam, the CEO of Hong Kong. Photo: Vincent Yu/AP

“Authorities are simply pocketing more weapons to quell dissent,” Yeung told the Guardian after Siu’s June speech. “It looks very likely that this ‘fake news’ bill proposal will be put on the agenda in the next legislature.”

In recent years, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which Yeung formerly headed, has sparked the ire of authorities. Last fall, the city’s new chief of security, Chris Tang, accused the organization of “violating professional ethics” by supporting the idea that “everyone is a journalist”. In December, Tang gave his full support for the introduction of a fake news law.

The psychological impact on Hong Kong’s journalists – once regarded by many as rubbish – is clear. A survey from November A publication by the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong found that 84% of those surveyed thought the situation had worsened since the introduction of the national security law. Some of the respondents acknowledged a degree of self-censorship. Beijing accused the trade association of “sowing discord”.

“We are very nervous here about the future of media freedom in Hong Kong,” said Jemimah Steinfeld, a China expert at the London-based Index on Censorship. “It’s hard to believe today that, until recently, Hong Kong was the place foreign media journalists went to report on China more freely. It’s devastating.”

For young and aspiring Hong Kong journalists, the devastation was personal. When police raided Apple Daily headquarters in 2020, one of the staff reporters was angry. “I was too stunned at first to even react,” Oscar said in a Guardian documentary that year. “Then that turned to anger when I saw the events happen.”

Last June, when the nails were hammered into the Apple Daily coffin, he met a colleague on the subway platform to share their plans for the future. They greeted each other with a big hug and burst into tears. “We’ve never done anything wrong. We have always done our part and worked hard to bring good news. Why did we end up like this?” he said.

Now, at the age of 25, Oscar has put down his pen and works as a photographer in Hong Kong. He said he was “mourning” when he left Apple Daily in June. “I [had studied journalism] four years in college, worked for Apple Daily part-time and then full-time [for] over four years. It was my dream and passion to be a great reporter, and I worked hard for it. But it turned out to be so,” he said.

The rapid turn of events in his hometown in recent years has saddened him. Months after massive street protests that began in 2019, the National Security Act came into effect. Authorities argue that such legislation is “necessary to secure Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity”, but critics say it is being used to quell dissent and is “draconian”.

In reality, there have been waves of arrests of individuals – from journalists to politicians – who disagree with the Beijing and Hong Kong governments. According to Reporters Without Borders, nearly two dozen journalists and press freedom activists have been arrested since the National Security Act was enacted in June 2020. Among them, at least a dozen have been charged or are awaiting trial. Some opposition politicians — including Nathan Law, once the youngest legislator in the history of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council — now live in exile.

Journalists at Apple Daily are holding freshly printed copies of the latest edition of the newspaper and acknowledging supporters who have gathered outside their Hong Kong offices as the tabloid is forced to shut down.
Journalists at Apple Daily are holding freshly printed copies of the latest edition of the newspaper and acknowledging supporters who have gathered outside their Hong Kong offices as the tabloid is forced to shut down. Photo: Daniel Suen/AFP/Getty Images

For Oscar, his transition from reporter to photographer was a hesitant one. “This is not the decision I wanted to make, it is the times that forced me to stop being a reporter,” he said.

“I still want to be a reporter from the bottom of my heart. I’m not afraid of being in jail. But what about the people who work with me? Are they also inside because of my work? What about my family and my girlfriend? They would be absolutely devastated.”

But it’s not just local Chinese-language news channels that are feeling the cold. International news outlets like the New York Times are already moving bases elsewhere in the region because — according to the US company — the national security law “confused news organizations and created uncertainty about the city’s prospects as a hub for journalism.”

Senior officials are now sending letters to foreign news organizations urging them to support the authorities’ actions. “If you are genuinely interested in press freedom, you should support actions against those who have unlawfully exploited the media as a tool to pursue their political or personal gain,” Hong Kong chief secretary John Lee wrote to the Wall Street Journal. in a recent letter.

“Until now, the Western media is still operating with some degree of protection, but even this is declining and many are now opting for Taiwan instead,” Steinfeld noted. “The question is, to what extent are they being pushed out or are they jumping? Beijing killed the chickens to scare the monkeys, to quote the Chinese idiom, and it really works.”

At Citizen News, outgoing journalists have thought about their future in these uncertain times. On the eve of the shutdown, there were tears in the newsroom and well wishes too.

“We have fought the good fight. We have completed the course. We have kept the faith,” read a farewell card.