When it comes to grandstanding, the Hong Kong Journalists Association wins hands down. In this, it can take great pride, and to outdo the prima donnas of bodies like the Hong Kong Bar Association is no mean feat.
Whereas, for example, the bar chairman, Paul Harris, announced in January his intention to “campaign” for “modifications” to the National Security Law for Hong Kong, the HKJA has now pushed the boat out even further, calling on the “National People’s Congress to review the implementation of the National Security Law, taking into account the change of circumstances and the anxieties of Hong Kong people”.
The HKJA, of course, knew the NPC would pay it no heed, but this was irrelevant, as publicity is the name of the game. Self-important to a tee, and always on the lookout for a grievance, it churns out sensational statements on an almost daily basis. Its obsession, however, lies with its global audiences, and it knows how joyously its barbs are received in the United States and elsewhere.
Indeed, the HKJA positively revels in arousing foreign interest, presumably imagining, like the Civic Party before it, that this will enhance its status. On July 21, for example, after four journalists were arrested under the National Security Law, and without having studied the evidence, the HKJA rushed out a statement about “white terror”, which was the height of irresponsibility.
According to the HKJA’s code of ethics, journalists must be “fair and accurate” in their reporting, and should avoid the “expression of comment and conjecture as established fact”. If this means anything, the HKJA should at least make some pretense of objectivity before jumping to conclusions about matters of which it knows little. Indeed, as its latest annual report demonstrates, it is high time for the HKJA to get back to basics.
The HKJA was founded in 1968, and has issued an annual report since 1994. It claims to be an “internationally recognized voice”, with its report being “widely regarded as a definitive statement” on press freedom. It rejoices in its report being “widely circulated about (sic) foreign consulates and NGOs, and is quoted often in media reports about Hong Kong”, which, if true, is nothing to boast about.
If, as it knows well, the HKJA, instead of slagging them off, was in any way supportive of the government, the police force, or the legal system, its reports would be binned, and certainly not “quoted often in media reports”. The last thing China’s critics abroad want from the HKJA is anything positive about Hong Kong, so it tries hard not to disappoint them. Its forte, therefore, is placing everything in the worst possible light, and avoiding, for example, any acknowledgment of the National Security Law’s success in restoring normality to the city after the insurrection of 2019-20.
On July 15, the HKJA, chaired by Ronson Chan Ron-sing, from Stand News, issued its annual report. It was not, as is customary in other organizations, given a neutral title, but to grab the headlines, it was entitled “Freedom in Tatters”, a fitting sequel to last year’s, which was “Freedom in Danger”. Exercising its Basic Law right to free expression, the HKJA declared that freedom of the press was under attack, and that everything was doom and gloom. To rub the point home, Chan announced that “the past year is definitely the worst year for press freedom”, which, as intended, was gleefully picked up on by Epoch Times, Radio Free Asia, Agence France-Presse, and many others.
Afraid of being outshone, Chan’s predecessor, Chris Yeung Kin-hing, the report’s chief editor, tried to outgun him, solemnly declaring that press freedom had been “destroyed by totalitarianism”. Chan, however, fought back, announcing that, as there are “already many knives hanging over journalists’ heads, like laws against sedition and incitement”, there must not be a “fake news law” as well. This, of course, was blinkered posturing, as any responsible journalist should know.
During the insurrection, false reports were regularly invented by the protest movement and then publicized in the media, causing alarm, stoking hatred and provoking unrest. It was falsely alleged, for example, that the police had killed protesters in the Prince Edward MTR Station, and that police action had caused a journalist to lose an eye. Oxygen was even given to the myth that a 15-year-old schoolgirl, whose body was found floating in the sea, had been killed by the police, despite her mother having revealed she was suicidal. Such situations as these, which contributed directly to heightened tensions on the streets, cry out for a law to combat the spread of misinformation, and the inability of the HKJA to recognize this is deeply disturbing. On July 21, Chan described the government’s anti-doxxing proposals as a “sword over journalists’ head”, once again showing that, while the HKJA loves to influence events, it abhors the associated responsibility.
Even though criminal proceedings are pending, the HKJA chose to impugn the arrest of the Next Digital owner, Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the Apple Daily raid, and the freezing of its assets. Its report called these moves “unprecedented”, and “a psychological blow” to the media. At no point, however, did it evaluate the gravity of the allegations faced by Lai, his subordinates and Apple Daily. These, of course, center on alleged national security threats involving collusion with foreign powers, and the need to freeze assets to prevent any further crimes occurring. The report also failed to reassure readers, as objective reporting requires, that the suspects will receive a fair trial in a court of law, and that they will only be convicted if prosecutors can establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. As the HKJA cannot be unaware of how the criminal justice system operates, its biased commentary, given its code of ethics, is extraordinary. It will, however, play very well in Washington, DC.
Irresponsibility of this type is, of course, by no means new. During the insurrection, the HKJA was always happy for protest sites to be flooded by journalists and photographers, official or otherwise, even though their presence obstructed police operations and encouraged the mobs to up the ante. Once they saw the journalists and the cameras, the rioters invariably played to the gallery, putting on a show for them in the certain knowledge that whatever they did would be reported around the world, providing them with free publicity. Quite often, this endangered the lives of front-line police officers, and resulted in huge damage to public facilities and private businesses.
After it emerged that local media organizations were handing out press accreditations willy-nilly during the protests, it became obvious that there had to be proper regulation. Student press passes were being granted to people with no training, including schoolchildren, and this had consequences. Some of these pseudo-journalists, although attired in the trademark yellow vests, actually participated in the protests, with some even assaulting or obstructing police officers, and helping suspects to escape.
On one occasion, 150 “journalists” appeared at a shopping mall in Yuen Long to cover a protest involving only 10 persons. When such situations arose, it was hard for the police to identify who was genuine and who was not, which was highly problematic. It became all too easy for people to blend into the massed ranks of journalists, either because they were offenders trying to avoid detection, or because they wanted to use their cover to frustrate police operations.
When, therefore, the police force decided in September that a formal registration system for journalists was required, under the auspices of the Information Services Department, the HKJA might have been expected to provide its full support. But not a bit of it. It announced instead that the “police cannot be permitted to use administrative means to screen only officially recognized media, thus undermining the fundamental rights of the people of Hong Kong”. It demanded, moreover, that the new policy be withdrawn, and that, if it was not, “we will respond by taking any possible and necessary measures”, whatever that meant.
Quite clearly, therefore, the HKJA sees itself as being a law unto itself, and expects, under cover of “press freedom”, to get away with pretty much anything. Thus, in its annual report, it dramatizes the case of Bao Choy Yuk-ling, the investigative journalist who was convicted of two offenses of knowingly making a false statement on the Transport Department’s database, in order to obtain information for a documentary, and fined HK$6,000 ($771). Instead of reprimanding Choy for law-breaking and apologizing to the department, as any responsible professional body would have done, the HKJA chose to portray her as a martyr to the cause. Worse still, it treated her as being above the law, even condemning her conviction as “an affront to the Fourth Estate; it spelt the death knell of press freedom”.
The HKJA is also affronted that the Radio Television Hong Kong management finally decided in February to exercise some long-overdue responsibility, and put its house in order. This was after an official investigation was conducted into complaints of imbalance and unfairness in its coverage of issues that arose during the troubles of 2019, and found them to be substantiated. Indeed, RTHK’s bias against the police force was little short of scandalous, with one favored technique being for its front-line reporters to grab hold of any bystander who was willing to bad-mouth the police at public order events, and then to endlessly run their comments, however vacuous, in its news bulletins.
Although the RTHK investigation found serious failings of internal governance and management, including editorial accountability, its efforts to sort things out have attracted the HKJA’s ire. It complains, for example, of “increased government propaganda”, as well as of a direction of travel that is “utterly incomprehensible”, and will lead to RTHK’s “demise”. In other words, the HKJA is alarmed at the revival of responsible reporting at the broadcaster.
Such attitudes permeate the entire report, which stresses rights at every opportunity, but ignores responsibilities. The idea, moreover, that a journalist should have to assist the police when they are investigating, for example, a terrorist offense, as they are required to do under the National Security Law (Article 43), strikes horror in the HKJA. Even though a journalist’s assistance could help the police to foil a terrorist outrage, and thereby save lives, this simply does not register on its radar. This, of course, is a classic example of what can happen to any organization that operates in a vacuum, obsessed with grandeur but wholly unable to see the bigger picture.
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the HKJA published its 2020 Press Freedom Index. According to its report, “out of 100, journalists gave an average 32.1 points for press freedom in Hong Kong, a historic low since the annual survey was introduced in 2013”. The HKJA, however, while clearly happy to give the world this depressing news, did nothing to explain its own role in this outcome. It blithely disregarded the impact its endless scare stories and distortions must have had not only on the public but also on ordinary journalists and commentators, many of them unfamiliar with its track record of systemic bias.
The great American investigative reporter Carl Bernstein once said, “You can’t serve the public good without the truth as a bottom line”, and the HKJA should be reminded of this. The fear, however, must be that, even if reminded, it would still carry on regardless. After all, it knows better than most that the last thing China’s adversaries around the world want to hear is an accurate account of the situation in Hong Kong.
This article has been republished from the China Daily.