As Beijing cracks down, Hong Kong’s media hub status in balance

For decades, Hong Kong stood as a rare outpost for press freedom in Asia, a status that convinced the world’s biggest media organisation to choose the city as a regional base.

These days, many within Hong Kong’s sizable foreign media community are asking themselves how long the city’s position as Asia’s international media hub can survive as authorities broaden a crackdown on dissent to cover journalists from overseas.

On Saturday, the Economist said Hong Kong’s immigration authorities had refused to renew the work visa for its correspondent Sue-Lin Wong, an Australian who previously reported for the Financial Times.

Wong is at least the fourth foreign journalist to be expelled from the former British colony since 2018, when authorities declined to renew a work permit for Victor Mallet, the then-Asia news editor for the Financial Times, after he hosted a talk by Hong Kong independence activist Andy Chan.

The Economist’s Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes said authorities had not provided any explanation for the decision and called on the government to “maintain access for the foreign press, which is vital to the territory’s standing as an international city.” A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government said authorities did not comment on individual cases but acted in “accordance with the laws and policies in handling each application.”

‘Rectification campaign’

The international financial centre, which touts the free flow of information as being among the keys to its success, hosts the offices and regional headquarters of numerous international media organisations including Bloomberg, CNN, the New York Times, and Reuters.

Unlike in mainland China, journalists in Hong Kong do not require special credentials, only a standard work permit that historically has been relatively easy to obtain. As well as a gateway to China, the city has for decades served as a base for journalists to cover the wider region, playing a role in the coverage of major news events such as the Vietnam War and the 1969 Malaysian race riots.

Florence de Changy, a correspondent in Hong Kong for Le Monde and former president of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, told Al Jazeera Beijing’s “rectification campaign” since the imposition of a sweeping national security law last year had exceeded people’s worst fears.

“One of its [the law’s] articles targets specifically foreign correspondents. There is no doubt now that anything that may upset the Chinese authorities could get you in trouble,” de Changy said.

“I have had to censor people I interviewed for their sake, and possibly for my own sake as well.”

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily was forced to close in June after authorities froze its assets and arrested staff [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Although Hong Kong guarantees freedom of speech and the media under its mini-constitution, which was enacted ahead of the city’s transfer to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the city’s media environment has been transformed by the legal regime implemented following often violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Up until now, local media have felt the brunt of the law, which imposes penalties of up to life in prison for broadly-defined offences of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

Apple Daily, the city’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close in June after authorities froze its assets and arrested executives and senior editorial staff. Public broadcaster RTHK has had its editorial independence gutted under the management of a newly-installed career bureaucrat with no media experience.

Still, foreign journalists have not been immune to the changing climate.

In a recent survey of FCC members, 84 percent of respondents said working conditions had “changed for the worse” since the imposition of the security law, and 91 percent expressed concerns about plans to introduce a law to tackle so-called “fake news”. Fifty-six percent of respondents said they had self-censored or avoided certain topics, while 46 percent said they made plans to leave the city or were considering it.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s office in Hong Kong rejected the FCC survey’s findings, accusing the press club of “meddling in Hong Kong affairs”.

In August, veteran British journalist Stephen Vines, a former FCC president, announced he had left Hong Kong as a result of the “white terror” in the city and a “cumulative series of alarming events, both personal and political”.

Last year, the New York Times said it would move part of its regional operations to Seoul in response to the law, with the Washington Post soon afterwards announcing the South Korean capital as the location for its new Asian headquarters.

Victor MalletAt least four foreign journalists have been denied permission to work in Hong Kong since 2018, including the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet [File: Paul Yeung/Pool]

One journalist at a major international media outlet based in Hong Kong told Al Jazeera he expected more expulsions of foreign journalists in the months ahead, as well as the introduction of special journalist visas and a “fake news” law.

“If the granting of visas becomes unpredictable – like it is in mainland China – media companies will inevitably up sticks and leave,” the journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They’ll keep a core of reporters etc to cover Hong Kong and China, but why would you risk having sales staff, tech specialists, finance departments, regional editors, etc – not to mention paying eye-watering office rents – if visas become problematic. There’s no point staying if that becomes the reality.”

An employee at another international outlet in the city said she would be “shocked” if more media outlets did not suffer difficulties similar to the Economist’s.

“Eventually I think Hong Kong could become as restrictive a media environment as mainland China. To me, the big question is whether that takes a few years or a few decades,” she said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Reporting environment

Beijing has repeatedly dismissed concerns about declining media freedom in the semi-automonous territory. Earlier this month, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told journalists the number of visa holders working with foreign media outlets had risen by 98 to 628 people in the year up to April.

Wang described the figures as a “faithful reflection of the views on and perception of Hong Kong’s socioeconomic and reporting environment of people from all walks of life, including the press sector.”

De Changy, the former FCC president, said there was no question that dark clouds hung over Hong Kong’s future as an international media hub.

“You can’t report freely from the inside any more and you can’t travel around the region either,” de Changy said, referring to Hong Kong’s strict “zero COVID” policy that mandates between 14 and 21 days of hotel quarantine for arrivals.

“So what are the remaining good reasons to stay in Hong Kong? Everyone is currently asking themselves these questions.”

Economy General