Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards Canceled; Journalists Association Considers Disbanding

The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (HKFCC) has canceled its annual Human Rights Press Awards over fear of violating the National Security Law. HKFCC president Keith Richburg shared the news with members on Monday, two days after the board made the decision. Scheduled to be announced on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), the Human Rights Press Awards are among the oldest and most prestigious journalism awards in Asia, and this marks the first time in their 26 year history that they will not be held. Christy Leung and Danny Mok from the South China Morning Post reported on Richburg’s explanation for canceling the awards

In a statement sent to members on Monday, club president Keith Richburg said the FCC board had reached the “tough decision” to cancel the accolades pending further review after a “lengthy discussion” on Saturday.

“Over the last two years, journalists in Hong Kong have been operating under new ‘red lines’ on what is and is not permissible, but there remain significant areas of uncertainty and we do not wish unintentionally to violate the law,” Richburg said. “This is the context in which we decided to suspend the awards … We explored a variety of other options, but could not find a feasible way forward.”

[…] “But we still have a strong Press Freedom Committee, with myself and the club vice-president as co-conveners, and we’ll continue to speak out on press freedom issues as appropriate,” he said.

[…] “The FCC intends to continue promoting press freedom in Hong Kong, while recognising that recent developments might also require changes to our approach,” he said. [Source]

The cancellation drew criticism from several HKFCC members. At least eight members of the organization’s Press Freedom Committee resigned in protest. One of them was independent journalist Timothy McLaughlin, who stated, “By censoring statements and ending the awards the club is not only failing to uphold this mission but risks being used as a prop to keep up the myth that things in Hong Kong are carrying on as normal.” Theodora Yu from The Washington Post described other critical reactions:

Mary Hui, a reporter at Quartz and former Post intern, was one of eight members who resigned from the press freedom committee at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Monday. Hui called the club’s decision “regrettable and disappointing.”

“By canceling the awards, I think we send a rather worrying message that defending press freedom as the stated mission of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club is no longer tenable,” Hui said.

[…] Veteran documentary filmmaker Connie Lo, one of the adjudicators for four categories of the awards, said the club’s choice to suspend the awards is “an insult to the journalism industry.”

“Many times reporters had to risk their lives to pursue their journalistic works,” Lo said. “This year’s awards holds a special meaning to journalists from news outlets that have already disappeared.” [Source]

HKFCC members informed the Hong Kong Free Press that the decision to cancel the awards stemmed in part from the fact that nine recognitions—four awards and five mentions—were to be given to the now-defunct local outlet Stand News. In late December, police raided Stand News’ headquarters and arrested numerous employees for allegedly publishing seditious material, forcing the organization to shut down. Two weeks ago, police also arrested Stand News columnist Allan Au on sedition charges. 

Facing similar pressure, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) held an extraordinary general meeting on Saturday to discuss whether or not to disband. Members have been increasingly worried about their safety in the face of government investigations and scrutiny by Security Secretary Chris Tang, particularly after Au’s arrest and the targeting of Apple Daily, Stand News, and Citizen News. Recently, the pro-CCP newspaper Ta Kung Pao published an opinion article titled “Dissolution is the only solution for the HKJA,” and pro-Beijing lawmaker Edward Leung called the HKJA “a suspected anti-China organization that disrupts Hong Kong.” The Hong Kong Standard described HKJA chairman Ronson Chan Ron-sing’s deliberations over disbanding

Speaking on a radio program this morning, Chan said the online meeting has discussed whether the association’s constitution should be amended to allow the 54-year-old group to disband amid mounting political pressure, with the decision currently requiring the consent of at least five-sixths of the members, according to its constitution.

He confirmed that the topic of disbandment came up during the [Saturday general] meeting, but said such a rushed decision should not be made by a minority of its members.

[…] Chan said those in favor of disbanding the group took into account the danger and risks the group executives faced, while those against the decision noted the group’s historic value to both the industry and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Chan stressed it was “valuable” for the association to stand up and speak out for the industry when journalists were being criticized for simply doing their job.

“Some people think there is not much our association can do, but it is valuable for us to give a fair comment on things, especially when our fellows were being criticized for fulfilling their duties,” he said. [Source]

On Sunday, Hong Kong’s sole chief executive candidate John Lee stated, “Freedom of the press always exists in Hong Kong. I think there’s no need to use the word ‘defend’ because it exists.” A new report by Hong Kong Watch—”In the Firing Line: The Crackdown on Media Freedom in Hong Kong”—paints a very different picture. Based on interviews with Hong Kong journalists, the report documents how press freedom in the city is “being dismantled.” Helen Davidson from The Guardian described the scope of the report and the distortion of information in the absence of a free press:

The working environment for local and foreign journalists in Hong Kong has become increasingly difficult, the report said, detailing the widespread use of “lawfare” against journalists – including with the national security law – acts of intimidation and police violence, mass sackings, and government intervention or censorship of outlets. It noted the redefinition by police of who constituted a journalist, the pending introduction of a fake news law, and the criminalising of traditional research methods.

[…] The report also detailed multiple acts of police violence against journalists during the [2019 pro-democracy] protests, including some which appeared targeted.

[…] “In the absence of pro-democracy media, it is worth pausing here to consider the implications of the erosion of press freedom and how it creates further space for the pro-Beijing media,” the report said, accusing the outlets of “providing propaganda for the Chinese Communist party regime and the Hong Kong government, and threatening their critics, both in print and through various forms of harassment.” [Source]

Earlier this month, a survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) revealed that only 28 percent of respondents were satisfied with Hong Kong’s press freedom, the lowest rate since records began in 1997. In a further sign of declining press freedom, HKPORI deputy-director Chung Kim-wah revealed that he fled Hong Kong Sunday night due to “threats from powerful bodies” and fears over crossing “moving red lines.” Chung was taken in for questioning by police in January of last year when police raided his office for its involvement in an unofficial primary. On Tuesday, a Hong Kong political cartoonist who goes by the pen name Ah To announced on Instagram that he is leaving the city over the lack of freedom of expression. Kelly Ho from the Hong Kong Free Press reported on Ah To’s regretful departure:

The comic artist, who has drawn satirical cartoons about local politics for 11 years, made the announcement on social media on Tuesday. He shared a drawing of one of his iconic characters standing in front of what appeared to be the London cityscape and said he left because he “wanted to continue creating for Hong Kong.”

[…] The artist has more than 142,000 followers on Facebook and 123,000 followers on Instagram. He is known for being critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government and has produced work on various controversial issues, including the national security law, the electoral overhaul and the 2019 unrest.

[…] In Tuesday’s post, Ah To said he had made the decision to leave Hong Kong in a hurry and would not have time to bid farewell to his friends. He said he felt “guilty” about his departure, adding he would “speak up for the voiceless” and hoped Hong Kong’s history would not be left with “silence” in the future. [Source]


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