A letter to Hong Kong journalism students from the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chris Yeung.
How’s life after you finished your four-year journalism study in May? Are you enjoying the precious break before looking for jobs? Are you pondering about the question of ‘to be or not to be’? To be, or not to be, a journalist. I honestly don’t have any essential advice for you. This is plainly because the environment, both at macro and micro levels, for passionate and talented journalists to do as they aspire to do is worsening.
In recent weeks, there have been two news items about the media themselves, bad ones at least on the face of it. In the United States, President Donald Trump and the publisher of The New York Times, A. G. Sulzberger, were locked in a fierce clash over Trump’s threats against journalism. Trump revealed on Twitter he and Sulzberger had discussed “fake news” and how it has morphed into the phrase, “Enemy of the People.”
Sulzberger later issued a statement saying he had warned Trump that, although the phrase “fake news” is untrue and harmful, he was far more concerned about his labelling of journalists as “Enemy of the people.” He was worried Trump’s inflammatory language would contribute to a rise in threats against journalists. Sulzberger warned Trump was undermining the democratic values and ideals of their nation.
The war between Trump and the American media sounds remote. It also seems to be too dramatic to be something real. That the real-life battle has indeed been going on for months in a country arguably known as a beacon of freedom and is renowned for its free press is troubling. It adds gloom to the worsening environment for journalists to do their job in arguably one of the freest countries in the world. Chilly winds are blowing on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Back home, an air of doom and gloom has also engulfed the media scene. The Hong Kong Journalists Association, of which I am currently the Chairman, published our 2018 Annual Report on freedom of speech and the press last week. We have taken a look at the broad picture of freedom of speech and the press, and documented and analysed a list of media events over the past 12 months. One of our major findings was that the shadow of the principle of “one country” is looming while the room for freedom of speech and the press is shrinking. We are worried that self-censorship will get worse when it comes to politically sensitive issues like Hong Kong independence as people and journalists stay away from those “red-line” topics.
Doubters and critics have a point to question whether we are overly pessimistic. Some reporters have raised questions at our press conference and interviews thereafter about whether our concern about self-censorship over politically sensitive stories could be substantiated with concrete cases. Those are fair and legitimate questions reporters should ask. I have to admit, it has never been easy to ascertain a case of self-censorship. Journalists or columnists involved understandably tend to be reluctant to speak publicly. In one of the articles in the Annual Report, a veteran journalist who now teaches journalism at a university has detailed some subtle instances of self-censorship in the newsroom workflow.
The report has also documented several suspected cases of self-censorship including the retraction of a business column from the website of the South China Morning Post shortly after it was posted. The column alleged links between a Singaporean investor and a top aide of President Xi Jinping. It was removed with a clarification stating that the piece was deleted as it included “multiple unverifiable insinuations.” The columnist, Shirley Yam, said she stood by her report. We put the different sides of the story on the record for the public to judge.
As we keep a close watch on media self-censorship, we are mindful of the danger of being interventionist and speculative over the way fellow journalists handle their stories. Being seen to be interfering with the editorial independence of media outlets is the last thing we want. But in view of the growing political and capital power of the mainland in Hong Kong, there are growing concerns that pressure for journalists to censor their work has and will become more subtle. It is vitally important for us to maintain an even higher level of vigilance against any threats to the city’s core values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution legally protects freedom of the press in the U.S. If there is anything we can learn from the battle between Trump and the American media, it is the grim reality that press freedom cannot be taken for granted. There are always threats from the powerful and the rich against journalists who refuse to be frightened and to be bought. Journalists and society should stay vigilant and strive to preserve an independent and free press.
The importance of an independent and free press cannot be emphasised more. Just take a look at the stories about the plight of Liu Xia, widow of late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and poisoned products scandals, including baby milk powder and, more recently, vaccines. It has laid bare the dire consequences of a system with powers being exercised without effective checks and balances by an independent media and civil society.
When the going gets tough the tough get going. For those who have passion and commitment to be a watchdog journalist, now is a good and challenging time to brace against the wind.
Wishing you all a bright future.
This open letter originally appeared as a Letter to Hong Kong on RTHK Radio 3.