Hong Kong’s FactWire News Agency Closes, Further Cementing Government Control Over Media

Hong Kong’s FactWire, an independent investigative news agency, has become the fourth major news outlet in the territory to close within less than a year. FactWire succumbed to what it described as the “great change” in Hong Kong’s media environment since the imposition of the National Security Law, which has substantially dismantled the city’s independent media and civil society. With a shrinking space for journalism in both Hong Kong and mainland China, officials are celebrating a new era of “patriotic media” increasingly under government control. Bidding its readers farewell, FactWire released a statement announcing the termination of its operations:

For the past six years, we have done our best to keep this publicly-funded investigative news agency afloat in Hong Kong, whilst adhering to the highest standards of journalistic integrity. Through the ups and downs, we have always kept our mission – and our principles – near and dear to our hearts.

[…] In recent years, the media has contended with great change. Despite having wrestled many times with the difficult decision as to whether to continue our journalistic work, we had always come to the same affirmative conclusion: to stand fast to our core values and beliefs, and to always report the facts.

But to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose. It has, at last, come time to end our journey. [Source]

FactWire was established in 2015 as a non-profit, public service news agency financed entirely by public subscriptions and media licensing from readers. At its inception, it raised HK$4.7 million ($600,000 U.S. dollars) in crowdfunding from over 3,300 backers. Known for its hard-hitting investigations, FactWire labeled itself as the “first and only independent newsroom that specialises in investigative journalism in Hong Kong.” Its founder, veteran journalist Ng Hiu-tung, summarized the agency’s ethos in a BBC profile from 2017: “You can’t hide the truth, even if it hurts.” 

Tributes to FactWire were shared on Twitter following the news of its closure:

As FactWire closes, some other outlets are hoping to fill the gap, but Hong Kong’s inhospitable media landscape makes their survival uncertain:

The exact reason for FactWire’s shuttering is unclear, but many observers noted the political context. In mid-April, the agency released an investigation into incoming Chief Executive John Lee’s business connections with members of the Chief Executive Election Committee. Then, on May 3, FactWire published an investigation revealing that the government’s LeaveHomeSafe COVID-19 app had a previously undisclosed facial-recognition feature. The next day, FactWire reported that it had suffered a cyberattack, originating from a Hong-Kong-based IP address and involving unauthorized access to information on 3,700 of the agency’s subscribers. Hillary Leung from the Hong Kong Free Press recounted some of FactWire’s other major investigations and awards:

Earlier this year, a FactWire investigation found that there were a number of CCTV cameras in the vicinity of a Wan Chai restaurant where top political officials held a birthday party that violated Covid-19 rules.

It has also broken stories about safety concerns at a mainland Chinese nuclear power plant and the persecution of late Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo, according to its website.

Their work received a number of awards. Its reporting on the clashes between police and protesters at Prince Edward MTR station on August 31, 2019, during the anti-extradition unrest that summer, won accolades from the Human Rights Press Awards and the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) in 2020.

Its report on fake news during the 2019 protests was also a finalist for the SOPA’s public service journalism category in the following year. [Source]

More broadly, FactWire has disbanded amid a years-long government crackdown on the city’s media, abetted by harsh application of the National Security Law, that shows no signs of abating. In Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, released last month, Hong Kong dropped from 80th to 148th place among 180 countries, the steepest decline in the index’s history. FactWire joins three other Hong Kong-based news outlets that have closed within the past year: Apple Daily, Stand News, and Citizen News. In an interview with CNBC on the day FactWire closed, Carrie Lam nonetheless argued that “Hong Kong is as free as ever, whether it’s in the freedom of expression, in the freedom of assembly, in the media, and so on.” Reporting on the city’s media climate after FactWire’s closure, Tommy Walker at Voice of America described how journalists in Hong Kong are becoming an “endangered species”:

“The working environment in Hong Kong is getting more stressful because of the red lines and the external pressure put on journalists, who often become targets of propaganda,” [an anonymous Hong-Kong-based journalist] told VOA.

[…] “Now I think I am operating almost in the same way as foreign journalists operating in the mainland (China). It’s not that issues are legally sensitive, but they are politically sensitive, and you have to consider the political environment when reporting,” [another anonymous Hong-Kong-based journalist] told VOA. “I think there is definitely a culture of fear in the city, psychologically and sometimes editorially that affects us as journalists.”

[…] “A few years ago, it was perfectly fine to be a journalist in Hong Kong,” Tsui said. But today, journalists are like “the animals you have to protect when they are going to go extinct. They are [the] endangered species in Hong Kong,” [said Lokman Tsui, a former media professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong]. [Source]

On Monday, Hong Kong officials hosted a celebration for the 120th anniversary of the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper. In a letter to the newspaper read aloud at the ceremony, President Xi Jinping praised Ta Kung Pao for “continuously demonstrating positive voices and fostering society’s cohesiveness […,] safeguarding Hong Kong’s stability, promoting exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland, as well as fostering the reunification of people’s hearts with the country.” Ng Kang-chung from the South China Morning Post reported on how other high-profile attendees interpreted the role of Hong Kong media in society:

“These are also Xi’s encouragement for all media that love the country and love Hong Kong,” said [Luo Huining, director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong]. “In a pluralistic society like Hong Kong, we especially need media that love the country and love Hong Kong to uphold the truth and to beat the evil and hail the virtuous. And we need media workers who love the country and love Hong Kong to hold tight to their mission and shoulder their responsibilities.”

Also speaking at the ceremony, Chief Executive-elect John Lee Ka-chiu noted press freedom in Hong Kong was protected by the Basic Law and enjoyed the same safeguards as elsewhere in the world.

“So long as it does not break the law, there is no limit to the room for press freedom. This standard is in line with the advanced jurisdictions in the world, including the West,” Lee said. “Journalistic work should aim to achieve professionalism and excellence. It is not only for its credibility, but also it is to assume its responsibility and meet media ethics.”

[…] “In addition to continuing to make good use of press freedom to monitor the government, the media should also safeguard national security and observe the law, and take initiative to promote national security, to provide the general readers and viewers with the correct, comprehensive and objective information,” [Chief Executive Carrie] Lam said. [Source]

The shrinking space for independent, non-state-controlled journalism has been documented on the Chinese mainland, as well. As David Bandurski reported on Tuesday for China Media Project, a recent state media report from the All-China Journalism Association (ACJA) described the steep drop in licensed Chinese journalists and increasing “convergence” of news under government authority:

In the eight years from 2014 to 2021, the total number of media personnel with valid press cards (记者证) fell from 258,000 to 194,000, a decline of just under 25 percent. This translates to a total loss of 64,000 journalists across the country during that period.

[…] Another clear trend in this year’s ACJA report, glossed over in official coverage of the numbers, is that licensed journalists under the age of 30 in China today number just 14,000 nationwide. This is down from 40,000 eight years ago, which means that one-third as many young journalists are licensed today than were less than a decade ago.

[…] Another likely reason is the very “convergence” trend cited more prominently in official coverage of the ACJA report last month. Under the centralized model advanced by the leadership, multimedia content is increasingly created not through local and regional news outlets, but rather through “media convergence centers” (融媒体中心) that package material for multiple platforms. The result of this trend is likely to be increasing centralization of the release of news across the country, with party-state controlled centers generating a greater proportion of content. And centralization means less demand for the press cards required for journalists to engage in news gathering. [Source]

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