Head of embattled Hong Kong journalists' union to step down

Ronson Chan says he has been warned that denunciations will continue if he seeks re-election as chairman.
By Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2024.05.20
Head of embattled Hong Kong journalists' union to step down Hong Kong Journalists Association's Chairman Ronson Chan, right, speaks to reporters outside a court building in Hong Kong Monday, Sept. 25, 2023.
Alice Fung/AP

Ronson Chan, an outspoken critic of diminishing press freedom who currently chairs the embattled Hong Kong Journalists' Association, has said he won't run again for office in union elections at the end of next month, saying he had been told that the organization would continue to be targeted by the authorities if he didn't step down. 

"I was going to fight for a last term ... [but] I have decided not to run for re-election," Chan announced via Facebook on May 14. "There seem to be more attacks when Ronson Chan is linked with the Hong Kong Journalists' Association than when they are separate."

Chan, a former deputy assignment editor at now-shuttered independent media organization Stand News, first took the job following the raid on pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai's Next Digital media empire and the closure of its flagship Apple Daily newspaper in June 2021, an indication, he believed, that the 2020 National Security Law was going to be used to put pro-democracy media and anything that journalists wrote on trial.

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Ronson Chan (C), chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), talks to a police liason officer outside Mongkok police station in Hong Kong on September 19, 2022, before he was charged with obstructing police after he was arrested earlier this month over a dispute with two officers who asked to see his identification while he was covering a local residents housing meeting. (Peter Parks/ AFP)

Officials in China and Hong Kong repeatedly claim that journalists are safe to carry out "legitimate" reporting activities under both the 2020 National Security Law and the Article 23 Safeguarding National Security Law, which was passed on March 23.

But Lai is currently on trial for "collusion with foreign forces" for printing articles in the Apple Daily. 

Journalists and press freedom campaigners, meanwhile, say press freedom has gone sharply downhill, as Beijing ramps up its mission to protect "national security” with a constant expansion of forbidden topics and "red lines" in recent years.

Chan was arrested in September 2022 after he asked a police officer to show his warrant card during an ID check while on a journalistic assignment, just before he had planned to leave the city to take up a journalism scholarship at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University.

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Copies of the last issue of Apple Daily arrive at a newspaper booth in Hong Kong on June 24, 2021. (Vincent Yu/AP)

He was subsequently charged with "obstructing a police officer in the course of their duty" and has remained in Hong Kong.

In his Facebook post, Chan called his years as a journalist at the now-shuttered Stand News, and his time as chairman, "the highest honor of my life," but cited repeated attacks on him from government and pro-Beijing sources as the reason for his decision. 

He told RFA Cantonese in a recent interview: "This was a very difficult decision, but if I had stayed in post, it would have negatively affected the Hong Kong Journalists' Association."

"I had no choice but to get off the ship," said Chan, adding that he had received messages from pro-government sources warning him that the attacks on him and on the Association would continue if he remained chairman.

"What I was told was, if you stay on, then the attacks and criticism will continue," he said. "There was even an article about me in a pro-government media outlet in the past couple of days that asked the question 'Can Ronson Chan remain in place as chairman? Should he?'."

"When I heard these things, I thought it would be pretty difficult if I were to stay in the job," he said.

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Stand News chief editor Patrick Lam is brought to the news outlet's office building in handcuffs after police were deployed to search the premises in Hong Kong's Kwun Tong district on December 29, 2021. (Daniel Suen/AFP)

The Hong Kong Journalists' Association has been singled out on a number of occasions for criticism by officials and in pro-China media, which claimed he recruited a 13-year-old to join the organization and that he protects "disruptive elements" in the city.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Chris Tang has claimed that the HKJA doesn’t represent journalists in the city, while the tax authorities recently presented the union with a HK$400,000 tax bill following a "review" of its tax affairs.

Chan told RFA that he hadn't expected how comprehensively the Hong Kong media would be put under pressure in the wake of the 2020 national security legislation.

"We had one executive member who resigned," he said. "He had been working in news, but when Radio Television Hong Kong found out that he was an executive member of the Association, they transferred him to subtitles."

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Workers carry a box of evidence from the offices of Stand News in Hong Kong on December 29, 2021, after police raided the office of the local media outlet and arrested six current and former staff. (Daniel Suen/AFP)

He said the number of people entering the once-thriving media industry is now very small, and very few are now willing to risk serving on the Association's executive committee.

The Association, one of the few civil society groups still standing in the wake of the post-2019 crackdown, is now painfully exposed, Chan said.

"Now that so many civil society groups, opposition political parties and groups have been wiped out, we now find ourselves on the front line, standing alone," he said. "The exposure feels cold and painful, but I'll bear it for now."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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