Hong Kong Protests & Clampdown: ‘As A Journo, I Can’t Move On’

SF Lee, a journalist in Hong Kong, describes the dilemma – the compulsion to go out & report despite threat to life.

4 min read
Police in riot gear move through a cloud of smoke as they detain a protester at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Monday, 18 November 2019. Image used for representational purposes.

When the National Security Law (NSL) was enforced at noon on 1 July 2020, Hong Kong was as silent as a grave. Self-imposed exile of pro-democracy activists, dismantling of political parties and organisations in fear of prosecution, declaration of political pundits and commentators promising not to criticise current issues anymore, even the debates on the right for self-determination itself became a taboo, leave alone any advocacy of independence. The city’s reticence and silence felt like death.

Life in the post-national security law era felt like the apocalypse for many. The reality of living in Hong Kong as a journalist, was far more overwhelming than any of us could have anticipated – because we were in the middle of a ‘war’, in which the adversary was using mixed tactics – a hybrid warfare that was aimed at regaining control over the city and its citizens by eradicating the uniqueness of Hong Kong, its identity and liberal democratic structure.

Whilst hybrid warfare functions as a strategy to accomplish Beijing’s political objective, it utilises all means available in exploitation of the target’s vulnerabilities. This article focuses on some of the hybrid strategies – political, legal and psychological warfare –adopted by Beijing to target the pro-democracy journalists and freedom of expression.


Political, Legal and Psychological Warfare

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Perhaps the toughest war has always been the battle between us and our fear – and this is how psychological warfare is constituted. Since the beginning of the post-national security law purge, marked by a series of political and legal warfare, everyday life in Hong Kong as a journalist has been a struggle between duty and human security.

Within news agencies, self-censorship has been rampant, from senior staff to junior editors, and even for freelance writers, in fear of these possible political ramifications.

An example of this self-censorship can be seen through the replacement of words that are regarded as ‘politically incorrect’, for instance, ‘COVID-19’ instead of ‘Wuhan virus’, avoidance of sensitive discussions such as those on nationalism and the right for self-determination.

Journalists have been walking on eggshells since the implementation of the NSL, given that the penalties include life imprisonment, or worse, extradition to China, which frankly speaking, is quite intimidating.

Reporting truth, conducting analyses and commenting on politics has put individual security on a razor’s edge.

It is because when the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) deliberately raid Apple Daily offices – as the local newspaper is prominent for its pro-democracy stance and openly criticise the government – it is not only an insult to the freedom of press Hong Kong residents once held, but a symbolic demonstration of power – an obvious indication of how far the authorities are willing to go to suppress opposition and dissent. The move also serves as a warning to all journalists – ‘shut up or you will face political consequences’.

Hong Kong Admin Using Legal Loopholes & Force To Prevent Probes Into Police Action, And To Polarise Journalists

For journalists, however, tiptoeing around sensitive issues is tricky, not because the so-called political red lines remain blurred, but the fact is, there aren’t any. Earlier in November, Bao Choy, a producer at RTHK, was arrested and prosecuted because of a television documentary named ‘7.21 Who Owns the Truth’ she had previously worked on – the programme investigates the Police’s actions during the Yuen Long mob attack.

Despite tracking down of vehicle registration plates for identification of drivers being a common practice for fact-finding / reporting, the producer was charged with violation of the Road Traffic Ordinance by “allegedly making false statements when conducting vehicle registration searches.”

While the authorities are making use of legal prosecutions in attempt to deter further investigation of police misconduct, such actions also aim at polarising journalists and news agencies that are considered as a threat to the regime.

As a matter of fact, these hybrid tactics in political and legal warfare exploit the loopholes that exist in law and institutions. Thus, it severely undermined liberty and justice as the very judicial system that was devised to protect citizens’ rights was now being used against them.

Yet, far more problematic is the fact that as laws are often being emphatically interpreted in the government’s favour, these people, a journalist in this case, will have to endure a long-process of trial, regardless of conviction. These actions have severe psychological impact on these individuals; Beijing and the HK government, have thus succeeded in generating ‘deterrence’, namely ‘terror’, in the city.

Still, there are times that courage overtakes fear, especially when you are a journalist.


“Some People Move On, But Not Us”

As a journalist, in times of turmoil, one is expected to walk into dangerous waters in search of answers and to expose the truth. Thus, despite the dangers, risks and threat to life, many just can’t help taking chances every now and then.

It may be particularly tricky for people like me who just can’t shut up. But I believe that craving for the truth is in our blood. It is what makes us journalists in the first place. And it is our obligation to conduct investigations, reveal it to the public and hold the government accountable. The regime may be dictatorial, the fight may be asymmetric, but none of us is giving in – because this is what we do – what journalists have always done.

(SF Lee is a journalist in Hong Kong. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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