Reporting and surviving in an age of geopolitical paranoia

Jul 13, 2023
KOWLOON, HONG KONG People Waiting in Line For Newspapers at Nathan Road Mong Kok in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Journalism is tough at a time when many topics could be seen through a political lens. Hong Kong provides an interesting case, although it is not the only place where journalism is having to navigate shifting geopolitics and social developments that divide countries and communities.

Pearls and Irritations, created by Australians in Australia, is a case in point. It provides an alternative platform for non-establishments views.

Ever since the 1980s, when it became clear that Hong Kong would be reunified with China, concerns were raised about the future of press freedom. Anxieties stemmed from systemic differences, and human nature.

The British system was seen as relatively liberal versus the Chinese system. Hence, the media in Hong Kong was expected to become less free after 1997.

Furthermore, human nature responds to who butters the bread. Journalists and media managers globally self-censor to avoid trouble – their bosses and advertisers might not want to air controversial issues.

Prior to the passage of the National Security Law (NSL) in 2020, the level of press freedom in Hong Kong was thought to be generally “acceptable”. After its passage, press freedom was seen to have narrowed.

Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index showed Hong Kong’s position fell from 73 in 2019 to 80 in 2020 and 2021, fell further to 148 in 2022 and improved slightly to 140 in 2023.

Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) press freedom survey 2023 reflected current sentiments. While only a very small number of journalists felt “harassed”, many had left the profession or left Hong Kong altogether. Some local media organisations had packed up, and critics of government had closed shop or became less willing to speak out.

A key concern was knowing where to draw the line. Sensitive topics included politics, government, “China”, protests, independence, democracy, Taiwan, and the NSL. The majority of those surveyed (over 60%) said they self-censored on content, changed the choice of words (such as describing the NSL as “far-reaching” rather than “draconian”), and avoided sensitive topics.

Journalists struggled to practice as professionals but also did not want to rock the boat. Significantly, some said they were producing better copy because they were more sensitised and cautious, and did less editorialising, which presumably meant they stuck to facts and left opinions to the Op-Ed sections.

Self-censorship should be seen within the context that the media tend to take sides in politics. Prior to 1997, the mainland-related newspapers supported China’s views, whereas English and local Hong Kong media supported British and a variety of local views. Those were the “good old days” when Hong Kong was a spot of the West in the East, where press freedom was considered high.

Hong Kong used to be frequently contrasted with Singapore, with its unforgiving Internal Security Act, Sedition Act, and Official Secrets Act.

Is press freedom now better in Singapore than Hong Kong? According to the World Press Freedom Index the answer is marginally yes. Singapore’s ranking in 2019 was 151 (compared to 73 in Hong Kong) and 129 in 2023 (compared to 140 in Hong Kong).

For journalists working in Singapore, it is business-as-usual – they have always known where the red lines are for local reporting. For Hong Kong, every tightening is understandably lamented as a loss.

Hong Kong must navigate new circumstances, as the notion of “security” has changed from that seen from Whitehall prior to 1997 to one seen from Beijing in today’s world where the two major world powers – China and the United States – are in conflict over the former’s right to advancement and the latter’s fear of losing its pre-eminent position.

In this match, it would be hard to argue Beijing is not entitled to deal with its perceived security risks. It is precisely because Hong Kong is a much more open society that Beijing fears it could be used as a platform for disruption.

Beijing’s fear is encapsulated in article 23 of the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s post-1997 mini-constitution. It requires the special administrative region to pass its own laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government, and foreign bodies from conducting activities in Hong Kong and local bodies from having ties with them.

The NSL was shaped by the provocations in 2019. Beijing is hypersensitive to secession and subversion (i.e. regime change). Waving foreign flags, defacing national emblems, and buying advertisements in newspapers around the world to ask the international community to urge their governments to exert diplomatic pressure on the Hong Kong and mainland authorities, including the use of sanctions, were red flags to a bull.

In the mix was a large dose of violence and destruction over many months that included the use of homemade bombs against the police. In the eyes of Beijing, those were clearly riotous and terrorist activities.

Beijing outlawed secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements that endanger national security. Was Beijing overly paranoid under the circumstances?

Hong Kong still must fulfil those elements of Article 23 that have not yet been legislated. The current administration is expected to fill in the gaps in the foreseeable future, by which time Hong Kong will come closer to similar systems in Singapore and other parts of the world, including those in liberal western countries.

Despite their concerns, the FCC survey showed many journalists in Hong Kong were determined to “record what’s happening now” with a spirit of resilience. This spirit is what keeps journalism going in the world.

Reporting the facts is the key responsibility of journalists and media. The public can form their own opinions when given the facts. What is challenging is being aware of and acknowledging our own preferences, biases and even wishing thinking, and learning to put them aside to understanding what’s happening.

Hong Kong is having to deal with the mainland system that prioritises control. Nevertheless, the creation of the special administrative region of Hong Kong still facilitates the continuation of the experiment begun in 1997 that allows a much higher level of freedom in so many ways. Hong Kong people should not want this experiment to fail.

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