In recent years, Hong Kong has become a focal point for freedom of speech issues given its geographical and political position at the juncture between Western traditions of open democracy and China’s one-party state.
Academic freedom has been one flashpoint in the territory but press freedom is another sphere that demonstrates the tensions between the Chinese Communist Party’s control on the mainland and Hong Kong’s special status.
Those who are keen to protect Hong Kong’s media freedoms are therefore likely to be watching closely to see whether a new partnership formed between the Agence France-Presse news agency and the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Journalism and Media Studies Centre will have any bearing on the situation.
The partnership agreement, signed last month by Keith Richburg, the director of the HKU centre, and Philippe Massonnet, AFP’s Asia-Pacific director, will provide students with internships, access to the AFP video archive and joint editorial projects. A series of talks held at HKU will also begin with a lecture focusing on security issues and hostile environments that student journalists may face.
The tie-up will also involve the translation and publication of AFP’s ethical guidelines into traditional and simplified Chinese. The guidelines, which ask journalists to “challenge their sources and question the facts”, have already been published in French, English, Spanish and Arabic.
“This partnership was not done in Hong Kong because of the [press freedom] situation, but doing it in Hong Kong definitely can help journalism students learn better about ethics, how you cover political, legal, business [and] corruption cases,” added Mr Massonnet. “And if you can help enhance the freedom of the press in Hong Kong, I think that’s a good action as well.”
Mr Richburg, who spent 20 years working as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, said that within the centre “we very openly discuss Hong Kong media self-censorship and restrictions”.
“We have a very international student body, many from countries where the press is constrained, and they come because they want to learn international journalistic best practices […] including the importance of honest, balanced, objective, fair and independent reporting. Giving young journalists these tools is, in my view, absolutely the best way to combat press restrictions everywhere.”
Certainly, the evidence in Hong Kong is that the situation of press freedom has been deteriorating.
Although journalists in the territory enjoyed some of the greatest press freedom in the world prior to the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong’s position on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index has fallen from 18th place in 2002 to 69th place in 2016.
“The [constitutional] Basic Law agreement with China, on paper, gives Hong Kong a pretty solid base for press freedom, but the political context has become threatening and aggressive,” said William Horsley, international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield.
“I was in Hong Kong in July 2015 and saw a group of Hong Kong journalists. They gave a pretty grim picture from their experiences. One of them even equated the situation with journalists working in Russia.
“This is to say [that] the laws are not strong enough to protect them, particularly under the influence of this much more intrusive political backdrop of administration in Hong Kong, which is clearly leaning towards China.”
In the past few years, attacks on journalists have become more open and aggressive. Kevin Lau, chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao and critic of the Chinese government, was sacked and later stabbed six times during a demonstration in support of press freedom. Jimmy Lai, who owns the liberal newspaper Apple Daily, had a stolen car rammed through the gate of his home, petrol bombs thrown at his house and offices, and was publicly pelted with rotten meat.
These attacks, which have often gone unpunished, have been accompanied by the appointment of editors more sympathetic to Beijing, withdrawal of advertising from liberal media and restrictions on access to public information.
Many HKU journalism students will face the risk of hostilities that they may not have expected when choosing their career.
“Hong Kong is not a territory where journalists are suffering from a grave lack of professionalism,” said Mr Horsley. “But AFP’s presence and influence will be helpful because standards and quality of journalism are vital [and] one part of [the] protection against things like [allegations of] defamation. But much more important is whether the laws are unfriendly or hostile or biased.”
Regardless of the integrity of these future journalists, they are facing careers working in a political system that is threatening not just press freedom but democracy. Hong Kong students – having long been considered apolitical – have quickly become politically engaged.
After the August 2014 ruling of the National People’s Congress of China – in effect giving Beijing control over candidate selection in Hong Kong elections – students became a major part of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. HKU students protested after allegations of political interference in the selection of their new vice-chancellor in 2015.
Hong Kong, said Mr Massonnet, “is having a very strange moment about identity, about what will happen 30 years from now”. It remains to be seen whether these newly political students will continue to defy Beijing when they begin their careers as journalists.
“Young people all over Hong Kong have become more politically engaged,” said Mr Richburg. “We teach our students the long-standing journalistic values of objectivity, fairness and balance. I understand those old-fashioned values are under attack now, including in the US with the rise of commentary blogs and the blurring of opinion and reporting. But I am teaching [JMSC] students to cherish and practise these traditional international media best practices.”