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Almost half of Hong Kong-based journalists polled, roughly 46%, said they were considering leaving the city due to a decline in press freedom under a Beijing-drafted security law.

A press freedom survey published Friday by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, painted a dire picture of the former British colony’s media landscape since China imposed the broadly written national security law in June 2020.

An overwhelming 84% of journalists said working conditions in the Asian financial hub had declined under the law, with 56% saying they’d engaged in self-censorship since its passage. Only half said they understood where the government’s red lines were.

Other key findings included 91% of respondents saying they were concerned about a possible fake news law and 86% said it was harder to get sources quoted on the record. Some journalists said they had deleted images out of security concerns. There is “widespread” concern about digital and physical surveillance, but 56% of respondents said they had not experienced “over censorship” in their newsrooms.

“These results clearly show that assurances that Hong Kong still enjoys press freedom, guaranteed under the Basic Law, are not enough,” FCC President Keith Richburg said. “More steps need to be taken to restore confidence among journalists and to make sure Hong Kong maintains its decades-long reputation as a welcoming place for the international media.”

The survey underscores the wider crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, which enshrines freedom of speech in its mini constitution, the Basic Law — unlike in mainland China where journalists are arrested for criticizing the government.

The former British colony has for decades been a base for international media outlets, but since the security law the New York Times has moved part of its Hong Kong operations to Seoul, citing uncertainty about the city’s prospects as a journalism hub, while in June the Apple Daily newspaper was forced to close, after several of its executives and editors were arrested under the legislation.

The local branch of China’s foreign ministry condemned the survey as an attempt by “black hands” to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs, an accusation central to many of the security law cases now being prosecuted in court. The agency also said the survey was a breach of “professional ethics,” a criticism authorities have leveled at civil society groups such as a teachers’ union that disbanded under pressure in August.

“We urge the FCC to put itself in a right position, distinguish right from wrong, earnestly respect the rule of law in Hong Kong, and immediately stop using any excuses to cause trouble and interfere in Hong Kong affairs,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin separately noted in a briefing later that there were 628 foreign media staff with valid visas in Hong Kong, which he said was an increase of 98 from last year.

The city’s security secretary, Chris Tang, has in recent months criticized the Hong Kong Journalist Association, accusing it of infiltrating schools to spread political views, something the association has denied. Hong Kong ranked 80th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 press freedom index, down from 54th place a decade ago.

In response to the survey, the FCC has urged the Hong Kong government to notice the concern of its members, work to restore confidence in the city’s media landscape and carefully consider the impact a “fake news” law would have, reiterating its April letter to then-Police Commissioner Tang on the potential impacts of such legislation. The government has so far not stated when it might implement a fake news law.

The FCC survey was conducted from between August and October and only contacted the club’s correspondent and journalist members. They received 99 responses, 70 from correspondents working for foreign media outlets and 29 from journalists working for local media.

In the survey, one respondent noted that Hong Kong had become worse than the mainland for journalistic reporting because no one knows what the red lines are. “There is real fear that previous coverage could be scrutinized,” the respondent wrote.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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