Facing censorship at home, Hong Kong journalists take to the diaspora

Mar 7, 2023 in Press Freedom
Protesters with umbrellas in Hong Kong

Hong Kong once exercised self-governance under a “one country, two systems” policy due to its status as a designated Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China. Essentially, this meant that Hong Kong was considered a part of China while at the same time it conducted its democratic affairs independently—and notably, separate from Chinese socialism. 

But in June 2020, China imposed the National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong, which took aim at the city’s prior autonomy and tightened China’s grip on Hong Kongers’ rights. The new law criminalized anti-government free speech, targeted pro-democracy and anti-communist party demonstrations, and led to the arrests of perpetrators. The legislation also effectively stripped journalists of their freedom to openly and unapologetically report, flattening the media landscape into a barren terrain of heavily monitored content

Many Hong Kong journalists have since moved overseas to countries including the U.K., U.S., Australia and Canada since the legislation passed. In spite of sustained threats to their safety and attempts to censor their coverage, these diasporic journalists have continued to report from abroad for local Hongkongers.

I spoke with several diasporic reporters about the unique circumstances and influx of obstacles they face while covering Hong Kong from overseas. 

Fallout from the National Security Law

Prior to the National Security Law’s passage, Hong Kong SAR and the local media operated independently from the Chinese Community Party (CCP). “Those days were the heydays for press freedom in Hong Kong. Of course, the [CCP] government increasingly wanted to limit their press freedom,” said Sunny Cheung, chief editor of Flow Hong Kong magazine and a leading activist during the 2019 student protests who reports from exile today. “The Hong Kong government was still very cautious and didn't want to limit the [region’s] press freedom.” 

While the Chinese government has for years encroached upon press freedom in Hong Kong, the NSL specifically targeted news outlets seen to defy the CCP. The law shut down all major pro-democracy media, namely Stand News and Apple Daily, and left more than one thousand journalists jobless — many of whom are now behind bars. “The most direct impact [of the NSL] is that I lost my job,” said a now-indicted Hong Kong reporter*. “My company got shut down. My career was ruined.”

For journalists who stayed in Hong Kong, their careers have ceased to exist or their reporting has diminished to operate solely within China’s designated, and very limited, scope of approval. “There are still quite a few journalists in Hong Kong doing very good stories under enormous pressure and difficult circumstances,” said VOA News journalist Kris Cheng. “But there are few options to continue to work in journalism. For many, it is safer to move outside [of Hong Kong] and work in exile.”

Taking to the diaspora

Journalists working in exile today have established media organizations that counter Chinese and Hong Kong state-issued disinformation. A small, tight-knit group of journalists, their support has proved vital to the continued output of uncensored news to Hongkongers.

“[The National Security Law] opened a new possibility for me,” said the reporter*, who fled abroad upon the law’s enactment. “I belong to the community of diasporic journalists, which is something I never would have imagined.” 

Reporting on a faraway region is difficult—for example, it’s harder to access local sources and land an inside scoop across time zones—but it has also provided diasporic journalists with a specialized angle for their reporting. “The new communities [of diasporic journalists] are forming things that may be difficult to report within the boundaries of Hong Kong, but can be done from outside,” said Cheung. He highlighted exiled journalists’ ability to publish news that incorporates outsiders’ perspectives instead of censoring them, and openly criticizes the state without being immediately overridden and shut down. 

With printed news a far from viable option, tapping into online resources is the best way for diasporic journalists to connect with Hong Kong’s community. Reporters have relied heavily on the international networks existing within social media platforms to bypass the government. They use Facebook and Instagram, in particular, to reach readers who might not typically go on a news website. “If you ask [audiences] to access a specific site for information, they rarely do it,” explained the reporter*. “Most of the time they open social media and flip through it, so it’s important to deliver news to platforms that they use.” 

Engaging in diasporic journalism can uproot many other aspects of a reporter’s life beyond their jobs. “It’s not just about impacting my career. It’s impacted my whole life,” reflected Cheung. “I can’t contact my parents. I haven’t seen them for more than two years, and in order to protect them I’ve cut my family ties.” 

Journalists who remained in Hong Kong are under even greater pressure. Some who initially chose to stay have since fled, as a result. Ronson Chan, former Stand News reporter and now chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, was arrested before traveling to Oxford on a fellowship and is currently on bail. “All my friends and family are worried about me and hope that I will be able to move away,” said Chan, who awaits his trial in May. “But I love Hong Kong very much. I don’t want to leave.” 

Even Cheng, whose move to London was not rushed or involuntary, said his decision was in response to “the fear for [his] family and the fear of being persecuted” if he were to stay reporting in Hong Kong.

The future of diasporic journalism 

The future for Hong Kong’s diasporic journalists is uncertain. “How far this path [of diasporic journalism] can go is still doubtful,” the reporter* confessed. “As a media worker in this community, I’m not 100% sure whether I can continue my work or not.” 

The obstacles of reporting from abroad have proved defeating at times, pushing some journalists to leave their reporting behind. “Not being present in Hong Kong is a problem for diasporic journalists,” said the reporter*. “Many of them think they have a distance which they cannot overcome.”

Likewise, funding for diasporic reporters’ coverage remains unstable. Many Hong Kong people consider it too risky to “give money to the media bases outside [of Hong Kong],” said Chan. Without the monetary backing of their audiences, continuing to report is often unsustainable. This has led many journalists to look elsewhere for more reliable sources of income. “If you interview me in a year, I might tell you I’m doing deliveries,” said the reporter*. 

Amid daunting challenges and looming doubt, Hong Kong diasporic journalists’ perseverance demonstrates a commitment to press freedom and a dedication to relaying the truth. Fortunately, there is still potential for diasporic journalism to flourish. “Things are upcoming,” said the reporter*. “Whether it will continue to work or not, we’ll have to see.”

*Reporter anonymous for safety purposes. 

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash.