The daring and the dangerous
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
Many times in our blogs we have chronicled the work of frontline journalists. They are often daring, and sometimes their work is dangerous. We address their role again here, to highlight and emphasise the efforts made by authoritarian forces to silence the important reporting work of dedicated newsgatherers, photographers, writers and publishers. It's about establishing a narrative closer to the truth than that spun by propaganda machines of agents like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the military junta in Myanmar.
There are those, like documentary makers, who recognise that expression in the field of current events is something of an art form. Good work needs to be distributed far and wide, and to receive the recognition it so richly deserves. Hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong (FCC), Amnesty International and the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the Human Rights Press Awards was the first honour of its kind in Asia and remains among the region’s most prestigious professional accolades, celebrating journalism that raises awareness about human rights and highlights threats to freedom.
How sad that in HK the staff at RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) were recently told to withdraw their entries from consideration in the press awards, by recently appointed Director of operations at the government broadcaster, Patrick Li. He took office on March 1, replacing the former RTHK chief Leung Ka-wing around two weeks after a government report found “deficiencies” in the broadcaster’s editorial management. Since Li took office no fewer than nine episodes of various shows have been axed without much explanation or justification, except to say that RTHK must adhere to operating principles and the National Security Law (NSL) much more stringently than under previous management. (HKFP, 31 March 2021)
UPDATE: RTHK management has axed a planned episode of its Hong Kong Connection current affairs show that was to consider what room there was for online media in the city to survive. (RTHK, 5 April 2021)
PRESS FREEDOM is one of the freedoms guaranteed under the terms of the Joint Declaration and it's also specifically mentioned in the HK's Basic Law and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, in March 2020 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) barred several U.S. journalists from working in both the mainland and in HK. And in May 2020 HK Police detained a 12-year old boy who was working as a student journalist covering a weekend protest in a shopping mall. The shocking attempt to silence this voice went as far as Police harassment and threats.
In HK we had already documented the awful September 2019 experience of Indonesian Journalist Veby Mega Indah who was hit by a Police rubber bullet fired at a low angle less than 12 metres away. Indah, an associate editor with Suara Hong Kong News, was live streaming Sunday’s anti-government protest in Wan Chai. She was on a footbridge connecting Wan Chai MTR station with Revenue Tower at the time she was hit in her right eye. It was later announced that she had lost sight in that eye. Attempts to seek legal redress from Police via several channels were ALL unsuccessful.
Police violence against reporters and tensions between the two has been well-documented. In October 2019 the HKJA lodged a judicial review of police treatment of reporters amid escalating injuries amongst its journalists while covering the city’s chaotic National Day demonstrations, filing a legal challenge against the city’s police over improper treatment of media personnel during anti-government protests.
The HKJA challenged against the Hong Kong police over their pattern of “deliberately aggressive and obstructive police tactics as well as unnecessary and excessive force.”
The HKJA submitted 13 accounts from affected journalists to the court for consideration, urging it declare that the police actions violated the Basic Law and the HK Bill of Rights.
In December 2020 Judge Anderson Chow ruled that “the proper course” for journalists who felt that they were improperly treated would be legal action against the Commissioner of the force, or the government.
Chow added that the judgement did not mean that the court had ruled on whether the police acted wrongfully or not, and it could only be determined after a full investigation.
In response the HKJA said on Facebook that they were “extremely disappointed” that the court had rejected their application, adding that under the “fundamentally flawed” complaint system of the HK police, it would be extremely difficult to challenge police misconduct using the current complaint mechanism or the time-consuming legal process. (HKFP, 21 December 2020)
Another form of Police violence, a bit like the doxxing the Police themselves have suffered, is the tit-for-tat revealing of journalist's ID via live-streamed media.
And how would you feel if your reporting was somehow invalidated by Police, or discredited as being some form of misrepresentation? This is unfortunately what happened to a reporter working for HK newspaper Stand News, who covered a riotous mob-attack in Yuen Long. On July 21, 2019, over 100 white-clad assailants – some with triad connections – assaulted protesters, commuters and journalists with rods and other weapons inside and around Yuen Long’s MTR station.
The former Stand News reporter Gwyneth Ho broadcast the incident live on Facebook and was seen in the clip being beaten up by white-shirted men. She said her video had reflected the truth as it was a continuous stream that was running for around an hour. The HK Police, however, in August 2020 claimed the livestream was "biased" reporting that distorted the truth. (HKFP, 27 August 2020)
This was not to be the end of the Yuen Long saga, however, as much as the HK Police and the government would no doubt like the whole affair to go away and cease being reported.
Bao Choy, an employee of the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), was arrested in mid-November 2020 in connection with data on vehicle registrations she used for an investigative documentary.
Her investigative piece examined the July 21 mob attack at Yuen Long subway station the previous year, which saw dozens of suspected gang members violently attack pro-democracy supporters. Footage of the attack posted on social media showed masked men, wearing white T-shirts and armed with batons and metal rods, blindly attacking unarmed crowds on the platform and inside train carriages in the far northwest of HK. After the Yuen Long incident, HK police were widely criticized for their slow response, and protesters accused law enforcement officials of working with the gangs — a charge the police repeatedly denied. (Localnews8.com, 10 November 2020) Other subsequent criticism of HK Police has centred on the sluggish Police investigation and lack of prosecutions in relation to the incident.
So, for Bao Choy, finding out who owned or who was driving several vehicles seen driving the white-clad assailants around Yuen Long before and after the attack was strategic. In a letter sent to HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam, several media groups urged the government to open up searches of information. This was prompted by the filing of a case against RTHK producer Bao Choy who was charged by Police after accessing a government vehicle database for her investigative report. (Ifex.org, 19 November 2020) However, the demand from HK media groups for more access to information from government departments fell on deaf ears.
RTHK producer Bao Choy (pictured without poster in the centre of these demonstrators) was charged with making false declarations, Fanling District Court, 10 November 2020
In a statement, the HKJA said that checking publicly accessible databases -- such as vehicle registration marks -- was a "common investigative tool" employed by journalists in HK, and has been crucial in helping reporters uncover important stories such as electoral fraud and illegal construction.
"We are extremely shocked and infuriated by police's unreasonable and ridiculous move," it said. "Police have abused the Road Traffic Ordinance in suppressing normal reporting activities, and this is set to damage press freedom."
In other HK news concerning the access to information, journalists can no longer freely search for the names of directors of companies registered in the city. This is important since without this transparency it is much easier for illegal companies to set up here. As a global business center, HK has long been trumpeted as having one of the more transparent registers of company records, a window that helped shine a light on the wealth of powerful Chinese families, exposed corruption and revealed alleged violations of Iranian sanctions. Now, the SAR’s government is seeking to curb public access to details that identify owners and directors, a move that journalist groups and investors say would erode corporate transparency and diminish press freedom while protecting the interests of the political and business elite. (Wall Street Journal, 4 April 2021) Closing down this access to information, whether it is for journalists or for the US State Department who wants to know, is a serious concern.
President Biden has acknowledged that the United States and China are in competition with one another. Subsequent comments by Chinese diplomats appearing in state media suggest that China is 'unafraid' of such competition, yet they want what Joe Biden referred to as "international rules" to be clarified and respected by all.
A key problem for the US and any other country doing business with China, is the way strategic information is withheld by CCP using its autocratic censorship, and militaristic governance. CCP also has a very capable propaganda arm that can twist facts, fudge the data, and misrepresent the truth. There is NO GUARANTEE of fair competition whatsoever under these circumstances. You could try checking facts - but that requires skill. You must know what to ask, who to ask and what to look for! All of that takes more time, requires access, openness and transparency, and cooperation from your competitor.
Who is living in the dream world then?
In December 2020 it was reported that Chinese operatives were infiltrating positions of authority globally, so clearly many nations need to wake up to this security and economic threat. (Leaked Chinese Communist Party records show CCP members employed in senior, specialist and advisory positions, Fox News)
The journalist, John Sudworth, told BBC radio he moved to Taiwan with his family because it had become increasingly difficult to remain in China. He had been under surveillance, faced threats of legal action, obstruction and intimidation, he said. Mr Sudworth is not the first journalist to leave China in unhappy circumstances, and besides, many are either blocked entry altogether, or have their work severely restricted and monitored by authorities.
In March 2020, several US reporters were sent packing from China, including HK and Macau.
Back in January 2016, A French journalist, Ursula Gauthier, a reporter at that time for the French current affairs magazine L’Obs, was forced to leave China after the government said it would not renew her press credentials for the new year in response to a critical report on Beijing’s policies in the troubled western region of Xinjiang. Five years on and still the journalists' work to uncover the genocide there to the world is not yet finished.
Frequently journalists are treated as 'diplomatic pawns’. Now even HK routinely blocks certain reporters who wish to base themselves here, and the CE shows no signs of backing down on Beijing's wishes with regards the barring of journalists. The Victor Mallet case in HK is arguably the most high profile exclusion of a journalist based in the SAR.
Other key tit-for-tat events recently concern the spat between China and the UK over their respective international news services: CGTN and BBC. China banned the airing of BBC World News in its jurisdiction claiming it is not 'truthful and fair' - a week after the Chinese state channel was kicked off Britain's TV screens, (Mail Online, 12 February 2021)
The Diplomat recently reported that Beijing is getting better at spreading disinformation on social media platforms. Its networks are resisting others' takedown efforts, and its trolls are gaining traction amongst bona fide users. (29 March, 2021)
Over Easter it was uncovered in France that CCP had successfully elevated a fictional journalist widely published there, and prominent for attacks on 'fake' Uyghur reporting. (Vision Times, 4 April 2021). Although the 'robot' writer in question has turned out to be a real person, she wrote under a false name and reportedly has Chinese links. (Apple Daily, 5 April 2021)
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So, the dangerous work has to be done!
In HK we can see that there are still a number of newspapers operating. The Standard hardly rates a mention in the field for the strength of its investigative reporting. Apple Daily is much better and has diversified with an online English version. There are other English language operators, but none that command the strong respect of pro-democracy people like Apple Daily. Many HK locals will wait in line to buy their copy of Apple Daily from convenience stores, while the other more pro-Beijing papers regularly garner the patronage of the HK government that pays for full-page advertisements on their cover or their inside pages. Why pay for government propaganda the readers reason?
HK Free Press (HKFP) deserves respect too, but only operates online. Some people wonder how long it will be before their independent reporting and opinion pieces are silenced by the NSL Police. People in HK are aware of how easily authorities could fabricate a funding scandal to shut down their operations interminably.
South China Morning Post (SCMP) is being seen as increasingly biased and pro-Beijing in its editorial stance, amidst changes of ownership.
Across the board in HK, in the press, on television and on social media we have seen the chilling impact of the NSL. Censorship may be a problem in mainland China, but in HK it is SELF-CENSORSHIP that is the issue. Journalists and editors are forever wary of over-stepping the mark of what the government will allow to be published. While authorities say "the red line" must not be crossed, the problem is that the line is blurred, and it is shifting as the weeks go by!
While most nations perceive economic competition with China as normal and acceptable, or even sought after, WTPOHK wish to point one much larger and more serious matter that is largely being ignored at present. It is important for everyone that we can work together to overcome the current global pandemic. If any single nation can't overcome covid and then continues to act as an incubation pod for new variants and strains, WHAT IS THE POINT of a struggle with China, or CCP, the Thai government, or the Myanmar military regime??
And while it is most important that global trade should be a fair competition, we know that many developing nations are gravely aware of their disadvantage in the global scheme of things.
We currently cannot trust CCP to deal with us non-Han, non-Chinese on an even playing field...they withhold information, deny press freedom, punish whistleblowers, imprison dissenters, tell lies, and gather data from us for personal and business advantage. The more CCP is challenged, the more the party shows its inadequacies. Clearly both Governance and Journalism are challenging fields of employment, but we should never lose sight of the fundamental purposes of either.
Please take a look at our other blogs on related HK and CCP matters:
OTHER RELATED MEDIA REFERENCES:
Director of Hong Kong Protest Documentary Not Surprised China Wants to Ban the Oscars Broadcast, (VisionTimes, 4 April 2021)
Why Would China Censor Oscars Over a Short Doc Nominee? ‘They Are Obviously Afraid,’ Director Says, (The Wrap, 26 March 2021)
EU condemns China media ‘harassment’ after BBC departure, (HKFP, 2 April 2021)
Why Calls to Boycott ‘Mulan’ Over Concerns About China Are Growing, (New York Times, 2 September 2020)
Ai Weiwei mourns Hong Kong freedoms but is ‘proud’ of Tiananmen middle-finger photo row, (HKFP, 3 April 2021)
Exclusive: Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK seeks to withdraw from journalism awards, (HKFP, 31 March 2021)
The rise of the Chinese Communist Party-approved blockbuster, (CNN, 1 October 2019)
Police under fire for displaying journalist’s Hong Kong ID card during live stream again, (HKFP, 20 January 2020)
Gwyneth Ho: Hong Kong is bracing for a new era of deadly repression, (TwinCities.com, 19 August 2020)
Twitter Removes Chinese Disinformation Campaign, (NY Times, 11 June 2020)
Russian internet trolls hired U.S. journalists to push their news website, Facebook says, (NBC News, 1 September 2020)