The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) is the latest organisation to bow to growing censorship in the Chinese city after it suspended its annual press awards for fear of legal repercussions less than two weeks before the event.
The Human Rights Press Awards were due to recognise the work of media outlets that have come under police scrutiny, including the now-closed Stand News, a member of the club’s press freedom committee told Al Jazeera.
Previously the awards were organised by the club but voted on by an independent panel of judges. Award rules allow news outlets and individual journalists to self-nominate their work for free, unlike other press awards that sometimes charge an entry fee.
FCC President Keith Richburg said board members were concerned that the awards would create an enormous risk to the club under Hong Kong’s new national security legislation imposed in June 2020 and recently revived colonial-era sedition laws.
“We just couldn’t see a way to go forward without compromising the integrity of the award and without putting people at considerable legal risk,” Richburg said.
Founded in 1943, the club operates out of a formal clubhouse in the prestigious Central district and employs more than 100 people to run its restaurants, bar and social events. The board is regularly made up of journalists from some of the world’s largest news outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Reuters and more.
Richburg said board members were also concerned that the club would have to cease operations entirely and turn over membership information if it was investigated by national security police.
The dilemma is not an isolated event in Hong Kong, where press freedom has been “almost entirely dismantled” by the government, according to a new report by the UK-based rights group Hong Kong Watch.
From 18th to 80th in media freedom
Once known for having one of the most liberal media environments in Asia, Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and civil society has declined precipitously under the national security regime imposed to silence the city’s small but robust pro-democracy movement.
Since 2020, Hong Kong authorities have arrested 18 journalists, Hong Kong Watch said, and at least 12 journalists are awaiting trial from detention.
Report co-author Steven Vines said these events and other incidents among many others over the past two years demonstrate how “media freedom has been destroyed” in the former British colony.
Hong Kong’s ranking at the annual press freedom index by Reporters Without Border has dropped from 18th place in 2002 to 80th place in 2021.
Cedric Alviani, the East Asia bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, said the cancellation of the Human Rights Press Awards was the latest “consequence of the climate of fear installed by the Chinese regime since June 2020 through the so-called national security law”.
“This is no coincidence. No matter the reason they invoke, we know it is related to the fear to be prosecuted and jailed possibly for years for only having expressed an opinion,” Alviani said from Taiwan. “It’s, unfortunately, a sad story, and it’s only going to repeat.”
Even before the Human Rights Press Awards were suspended this year, they were already facing uphill challenges. Award sponsor Amnesty International pulled out of Hong Kong last year, citing fear of government reprisals.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association, another sponsor, said it was considering disbanding following the arrest of veteran journalist Allan Au on charges of sedition. Au, a former radio DJ, also wrote for Stand News as a columnist.
Stand News is just one of several news outlets including the tabloid, Apple Daily, and online news site Citizen News to close in the past two years.
Stand News formally shut down at the end of 2021 after its offices were raided by Hong Kong’s new national security police, who arrested senior staff for conspiracy to publish “seditious material”. The news outlet played a critical role in reporting on Hong Kong’s 2019 mass pro-democracy protests and frequently live-streamed key events and press conferences.
Even outlets that have remained open have felt the impact of Hong Kong’s changing media climate, according to Hong Kong Watch. The government overhauled its once critical public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and foreign journalists have also struggled to obtain once straightforward visas.
While the government has mainly targeted the city’s most outspoken critics like opposition politicians, democracy activists and pro-democracy news outlets, it now appears to be targeting more moderate figures and institutions.
The former chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association left the city in March after reportedly being summoned by national security police, while the deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute recently departed. The law firm Vidler and Co, which represented many 2019 protesters in court, has also announced it is closing its doors after 19 years.
A club in crisis
Some club members are concerned the FCC could be next. In wider Hong Kong society, the club has strong associations with the city’s former British colonial past and its large population of foreign professionals – facets that have not endeared it to the city’s reigning pro-Beijing elite.
Hong Kong’s next leader, John Lee, has indicated that a new Singapore-style fake news law may be in the works, as well as a local version of the city’s Beijing-imposed national security legislation.
Under the terms of Hong Kong’s Basic Law – also known as its mini constitution – the government is required to adapt a local version of the legislation known as “Article 23”. Hong Kong’s leaders have long resisted adopting the highly unpopular legislation, but with much of the political opposition behind bars or in exile, it is now possible.
Lee is also expected to target “foreign influence” operations in the city, which could target international media and foreign journalists.
Prior to 2020, the FCC was also not afraid to court controversy by hosting speakers such as pro-independence activist Andy Chan at a 2018 lunchtime talk. Shortly afterwards, Hong Kong immigration barred board member and journalist Victor Mallet from re-entering the city in what was widely believed to be retaliation.
Whether it will continue to do so, however, remains in question.
After the awards were suspended, eight members of the FCC’s press freedom committee resigned, including one of the club’s board members. “I feel nothing but the deepest regret and do not stand by this decision,” Shibani Mahtani, the Southeast Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post, who was on the committee for three years and on the board for two, wrote on Twitter.
One former committee member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said suspending the awards was a “tacit endorsement” of a potential sedition case.
I thank my colleagues at the FCC’s press freedom committee, particularly those who also resigned, for standing by the values of our committee — the key committee that made the FCC so much more than just a bar & restaurant, and a regional force for good.
— Shibani Mahtani (@ShibaniMahtani) April 25, 2022
The @fcchk board has decided to cancel this year’s @HRPressAwards. While undoubtedly a difficult decision, it is an extremely disappointing and I alongside seven other members have resigned from the club’s press freedom committee https://t.co/9GwH8waVqz
— Jennifer Creery 紀寳瑩 (@creery_j) April 25, 2022
Another ex-committee member, Quartz reporter Mary Hui, also pointed out on Twitter that the press club has removed its statement on press freedom from its website.
Hui told Al Jazeera that it was “counterproductive” for the club to cancel a press award and censor its statements while continuing to “profess an ability and commitment to upholding press freedom.”
The mission of @fcchk has long been to “defend press freedom in HK & across the region.” Sadly, it doesn’t seem it can serve that mission any more. That’s OK; it just needs to acknowledge it. Perhaps it already is, as the statement seems to be deleted.https://t.co/8lYwIADM5o pic.twitter.com/M1Gp1DSGcY
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) April 25, 2022
Others are concerned that it could simply become another bar or social club with a charismatic past, or alternatively be forced to operate by meeting at foreign consulates like the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in mainland China.
Richburg, the FCC president, told Al Jazeera that the club is simply facing the new reality of Hong Kong, which has changed dramatically in the past two years.
“It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs here, but again we have to recognise that we are living in China and people don’t seem to get that,” he said.