Hong Kong's laid-off journalists see a dark, uncertain road ahead

An ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy media outlets has left many fumbling for a future.
By Liu Aoran, King Man Ho and Lee Yuk-yue
Hong Kong's laid-off journalists see a dark, uncertain road ahead Ronson Chan, chair of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, stands outside the office of the now-shuttered Stand News, Jan. 7, 2022.

Journalists laid off after the folding of a number of outspoken news organizations since the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed a ban on public dissent face an uncertain future amid dwindling freedom of expression in Hong Kong, they told RFA on Tuesday.

A Jik, a former journalist at the now-disbanded Stand News, said she never expected the news website to fold, even after Jimmy Lai's pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper was forced to fold after its assets were frozen amid an investigation into the paper's opinion-writers under the national security law.

"Once they start arresting editors, then you start to worry about your boss, and whether that will also happen to them sooner or later," A Jik said.

On Dec. 29, 2021, her worst fears were finally realized, as more than 200 national security police raided the offices of Stand News, seizing more than 30 boxes of material and arresting its former chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and acting chief editor Patrick Lam, as well as former pro-democracy lawmaker Margaret Ng, Cantopop star Denise Ho, Chow Tat-chi and Christine Fang, all of whom have served on the board of directors.

"You can imagine it 100 times or more, but on the day it actually happens, when you go to court and see your two bosses in the dock, and the court clerk reads out the charges one-by-one, saying how your organization instigated this or betrayed that, it's a huge shock," A Jik told RFA.

"You may never have thought of the things you were doing as criminal, until someone [denounces you] and you have suddenly somehow broken the law, and committed a very serious crime," she said.

Stand News closed down on the same night as the raid, laying office its staff, and leaving A Jik out in the cold, wondering what to do next.

She has been focusing on meeting up with former colleagues, who go hiking, camping and rock climbing together, in a bid to reorient themselves in a world that has totally changed in just a few weeks.

"At least I know that there are others in the same boat; it would be disastrous if I had to go through this alone," she said. "I'd just be wallowing in a world of hurt."

She said they often orient themselves according to what their jailed friends, colleagues, opposition politicians and rights activists would want them to do.

"When you know that the people doing time want you to enjoy life, then you try to do as they say," she said.

But she flinches from looking too closely at possible futures, as tens of thousands of young Hongkongers emigrate to seek better lives free from CCP political control and educational propaganda.

"I don't think I'll ever meet a group of people like this ever again; I still really want to work with them," she said.

Film industry affected

Freelance video producer Sum Wan Wah, who used to work regularly for RTHK's Hong Kong Connection documentary series, much of which has been deleted under a crackdown on the state broadcaster, which now has to toe the government's editorial line, said he had realized how fast the space for free and independent journalism was disappearing when Stand News' closure was quickly followed by that of Citizen News in early 2022.

Without regular work from well-funded platforms like RTHK, Sum doubts he will be able to make documentaries as a freelance, with a one-hour film costing up to H.K.$100,000 to make.

"The production costs for documentaries are quite high, and it's not just about production resources; journalists also need to make a living," he said. "Will journalists be able to find anyone to invest, so they can keep on making these films? And do they even dare to keep making them?"

He said the ongoing exodus from the city that was sparked by the national security law is also affecting the industry.

"When a group of experienced people leave, it has a hugely negative impact on documentary film-making," Sum said. "When you take all of these issues into account, things don't look good at all: it's hard to see how it's feasible."

He said it's hard to imagine what he will do now, work-wise.

"None of that experience I have, or the wisdom I may have found along the way, is remotely relevant now," Sum said. "I could grit my teeth and soldier on, but death is getting closer and closer."

"One wrong step, and I could fall to my death," he says, in a reference to running afoul of the national security law, with its shifting red lines governing what is deemed acceptable public speech.

For A Jik, there is consolation to be found in the idea that journalism is, after all, the first draft of history.

"[My former editor-in-chief at Stand] once told me this: 'You know, everything you wrote, everything you are currently writing, all those stories you reported, is future history. It's a very important record. Maybe its value won't be seen for another 30 or 40 years, but people will see it when they come to read that stuff again.'"

Slogan on Tower Bridge

Meanwhile, activists in London projected a slogan onto Tower Bridge on Tuesday calling for Jimmy Lai's release.

"Free Jimmy Lai and the Apple 7," the slogan read, in a reference to the arrests under the national security law of people linked to his Apple Daily newspaper.

Mark Clifford, a former independent non-executive director of Lai's now-dissolved Next Media empire, also displayed picture on his personal Twitter account showing a projection of a photo of Lai raising his right fist, surrounded by journalists.

The installation was the work of artist Robin Bell ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and also featured the Olympic rings drawn in barbed wire, in a reference to China's mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang, as well as rights abuses targeting Tibetans, dissidents and Hong Kong protesters.

The display came after a coalition of Christian groups on Monday called on Hong Kong's leader to drop charges against pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai and other political activists currently behind bars under a draconian national security law.

Catholic priest Franco Mella called on chief executive Carrie Lam -- who is a devout Catholic -- to press the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing for an amnesty.

"Let's hope she gives an answer to the voice of her conscience as a Catholic," Mella told reporters.

Anglican priest and former lawmaker Fung Chi Wood added: "I hope more voices can be heard about the possibility of an amnesty for them."

The Rev. Alan Smith of St. Albans in the U.K. and the former Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, Lord Eames also added their names to the call for an amnesty, with Mella calling on the Pope would add his voice to the number of Catholics speaking out.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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