Politics, sanctions, protests. The list of topics that Hong Kong journalists are now reluctant to cover continues to grow.
In the two years since Hong Kong enacted its national security law, authorities have detained more than 180 people, including journalists, activists and lawmakers, according to data from the news site and of analysis China File.
And at least five media outlets have been shut down. Some like Apple Daily and Stand News closed after authorities arrested employees or executives under national security or sedition laws. Others, like investigative outlet FactWire, which announced its closure on Friday, cited only a “big change” in the reporting environment.
Last year, Hong Kong fell from 80 to 148 on the Freedom of the Press Index, where No. 1 is considered the freest. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which runs the list, says the security law has triggered an “unprecedented setback”.
As a journalist working for a European outlet told VOA, “For the media, it’s just not the city it once was.”
In another indication of the repressive environment, this reporter and another who spoke to VOA only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by law.
The second reporter, who worked for international media in Hong Kong for several years, told VOA she feels more pressure today than ever before.
“The working environment in Hong Kong is becoming increasingly stressful due to red lines and external pressure on journalists, who often become propaganda targets,” she told VOA.
The reporter said the pressure came from Chinese media and officials.
Hong Kong’s security office told VOA that claims of a decline in press freedom could not be “further from the truth”.
The statement, attributed to a representative, said freedom of speech and of the press are protected by law, but “[they] are not absolute and may be limited for reasons including the protection of national security”.
The rep said any legal action is based on evidence and has “nothing to do with [a person’s] political position, background or profession.
In addition to fears of legal action, journalists who cover politically sensitive information sometimes find themselves targeted by pro-Beijing media or online.
In these cases, the reporter said, a reporter’s work can be misrepresented or face personal attacks online.
“Pro-Beijing media scrutinizes ‘problematic’ journalists’ articles and speeches,” the reporter said, adding that they often twist the meaning of the original article.
“Sometimes these reports released by spokespersons have been picked up by pro-Beijing opinion leaders, lawmakers or even officials, warning of the consequences.”
“This kind of orchestrated intimidation also affects how we report. I think the psychological burden is also one of the factors that make journalists speak less critically and vocally,” she added.
The journalist, who covers politics for a European online outlet, said he was considering leaving due to online threats, criticism from pro-Beijing outlets and abuse on social media.
“It appears to be a well-orchestrated pro-government attack on Western media. And even though it’s not official, for me on the pitch I feel like the message is pretty clear,” he said. “Some reporting is no longer welcome in Hong Kong.”
This is a stark change from when this reporter first moved to Hong Kong. “There were almost no restrictions, so there was nothing to worry about,” he said.
This is no longer the case.
“Now I think I operate almost the same way as foreign journalists operating in the mainland (China). It’s not that the issues are legally sensitive, but they are politically sensitive, and you have to consider the political environment when you’re reporting,” he told VOA. “I think there’s definitely a culture of fear in the city, psychologically and sometimes editorially, that affects us as journalists.”
As popular pro-democracy outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News have closed, others are trying to fill the void.
Solo media operation reNews Hong Kong, led by Lam Yin-pong, kicked off in April as part of efforts to report on political issues via social media.
But the founder admits he too could be targeted for reporting on sensitive topics.
Other media outlets such as Flow Hong Kong and Commons HK have opened out-of-town operations to try to protect journalists from potential lawsuits.
But journalists are not the only ones to move.
Lokman Tsui, a former media professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, moved to the Netherlands after losing his term in 2020. He recently told VOA that was one of the many reasons he was gone, and in an interview at the time, Tsui said he wasn’t sure the tenure decision was politically motivated.
“Many of my students and journalist friends have been forced to look for different jobs or even change professions altogether or go abroad,” he said.
“Nor does it mean that there is [are] there are no more journalists in Hong Kong, it’s just that critics and independents are under pressure,” he told VOA.
Tsui listed some topics that cannot be safely reported: “Not the political stuff, not the sanctions, what happened in 2019, what happened in Yuen Long and July 21,” said he said, referring to an attack on unarmed pro-democracy protesters.
Hong Kong police have been heavily criticized for their response to the July 2019 incident.
But, said the academic, “That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to report.”
Hong Kong’s Mandarin-language newspaper Ming Pao challenged the government over a rising number of COVID-19 cases earlier this year.
“They found a good story critical of the government and caused a public debate about what is going on and the government had to come out and clarify the numbers. It was a good piece of journalism,” he said.
But overall, Tsui is pessimistic about the future of press freedom, with the city’s new chief executive, John Lee, proposing a bogus news law.
“A few years ago, it was perfectly fine to be a journalist in Hong Kong,” Tsui said. But today, journalists are like “the animals that must be protected when they are going to disappear. They are [the] endangered species in Hong Kong.