Yuen Chan | Hong Kong Free Press
“Despite the death notices, despite the closures, the arrests, the smears, the sad and reluctant departure of their peers, there are journalists who simply continue to do their jobs,” writes Yuen Chan.
I don’t remember when exactly I developed an intense dislike for headlines about press freedom in Hong Kong that contained phrases like “the darkest day” and the “coldest winter”, but I know it was long before the national security law overturned Hong Kong’s media landscape.
The problem with using superlatives like this is they lose their impact when it turns out that winter can be a lot colder, the days a lot darker. Perhaps that missing article, the interference from an official or the editorial reshuffle wasn’t so bad after all, perhaps the doomsday naysayers were just crying wolf.
It’s tempting to look back now at some of the press freedom related statements, campaigns and protests of past years and conclude that they were ultimately futile. Take, for instance, the joint campaign by journalism organisations against the move to hide company directors’ personal information from searchable Companies Registry data in 2013.
The government shelved the changes in the face of united opposition. But the restrictions were resurrected last year and new rules were enacted to make it harder for journalists to search data in both the Companies Registry and the Land Registry.
Another example is the protests against the abrupt removal of Kevin Lau Chun-to from his position as the chief editor of Ming Pao in January 2014. Thousands of people turned up for a rally to show support for Lau under the banner “They can’t kill us all” when he was brutally attacked by chopper-wielding assailants a month later.
There were more protests in 2016 when the paper’s number two editor Keung Kwok-yuen was fired after a front-page story featured revelations from the Panama Papers about Hong Kong politicians, celebrities and business people.
There are many other examples, including long-standing shows of support for RTHK’s editorial independence and more recently for its journalists such as Bao Choy and Nabela Qoser. The broadcaster has been effectively muzzled, Qoser was sacked and Choy is appealing a conviction for using “misleading information” to search vehicle licence registration data for an investigative report into the 721 Yuen Long incident in 2019.
The wintry metaphors have now been replaced by something more final. Now Hong Kong’s press freedom is declared dead, killed.
The list of events and developments that have battered Hong Kong’s media and press freedom continues to grow unabated. In recent weeks, the soon-to-be chief executive has claimed press freedom exists and that therefore there’s no need to defend it; the Foreign Correspondents’ Club decided to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards, even though the judging for this year’s event had been completed and the winners decided.
It’s certainly true that press freedom as we knew it is no more in Hong Kong. The 2021 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom ranking of 80 for Hong Kong was released last April, before Apple Daily and Stand News were forced to close and their senior journalists were arrested under national security and sedition charges.
So it’s understandable that some want to declare that Hong Kong press freedom is dead. Some Hong Kong journalists have even told me they think as much. But others find such proclamations are at best unhelpful, at worst downright offensive.
Despite the death notices, despite the closures, the arrests, the smears, the sad and reluctant departure of their peers, there are journalists who simply continue to do their jobs. They are striving to map the contours of the new landscape, an almost impossible task because the sands are constantly shifting. As a journalist at the now defunct Citizen News told me when Apple Daily closed: “There will be journalism as long as there are journalists.”
For most Hong Kong journalists, the notion of what journalism should be – a rigorous process of telling stories and presenting facts, providing context and holding power to account – is unchanged.
Many Hongkongers, I think, share that belief. They have marched to defend press freedom, they opened up their wallets to the independent online media that sprung up when mainstream media succumbed to creeping self-censorship under the strain of political and economic pressure, and they queued up for hours in the dark to buy the last copies of Apple Daily.
The past campaigns were not futile after all. They helped to entrench the idea of press freedom in a city that adopted it as a core value. Hongkongers will not easily forget that the current landscape is not a natural state of affairs.
Last year, Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairperson Ronson Chan told me that Hong Kong journalists would have to learn how to work and survive “in the crevices” – this is not the same as “getting used to it” or normalising the new restrictions.
On this World Press Freedom Day, we should salute the journalists in Hong Kong who are carrying out small and vital acts of journalism every day – although their sources are silenced, jailed, or scared to speak on the record, editors are more cautious and the space is increasingly constrained. A case in point: Ming Pao and Hong Kong Free Press published the list of winners of the suspended awards.
When big gestures become foolhardy, dangerous or impossible, small acts of solidarity with those quietly toiling at the coalface become more important than ever.