For decades, Hong Kong has been a rare outpost for press freedom in Asia, a status that has convinced the world’s largest media organization to choose the city as a regional base.
These days, many within Hong Kong’s sizable foreign media community are wondering how long the city’s position as an international hub for Asian media can survive as authorities widen the crackdown on dissent to cover journalists from abroad.
On Saturday, The Economist said Hong Kong immigration authorities refused to renew the work visa for its correspondent Sue-Lin Wong, an Australian who previously reported for the Financial Times.
Wong is at least the fourth foreign journalist to be expelled from the former British colony since 2018, when authorities refused to renew a work permit to Victor Mallet, the then Asian news editor for the Financial Times, after hosting a speech. Hong Kong’s independence activist Andy Chan.
Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes said the authorities did not provide any explanation for the decision and called on the government to “maintain access to foreign press, which is vital to the territory’s position as an international city.”
The international financial center, which promotes the free flow of information as one of the keys to its success, houses the regional offices and headquarters of numerous international media organizations including Bloomberg, CNN, New York Times and Reuters.
Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong reporters require no special credentials, just a standard work permit that has historically been relatively easy to obtain. As well as a gateway to China, the city has served for decades as a base for journalists to cover the wider region, playing a role in the coverage of notable news events such as the Vietnam War and the 1969 Malaysian racial riots. .
Florence de Changy, Hong Kong correspondent for Le Monde and former president of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, said Al Jazeera Beijing’s “rectification campaign” since the imposition of a national security law last year has overcome people’s worst fears.
“One of yours [the law’s] articles are aimed specifically at foreign correspondents. There is no doubt now that anything that may upset the Chinese authorities could get you in trouble, ”de Changy said.
“I had to censor the people I interviewed for their own good, and maybe for my own good too.”
Although Hong Kong guarantees freedom of speech and media under its mini-constitution, which was enacted prior to the city’s transfer to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the city’s media environment has been transformed by the legal regime implemented following often violent protests in favor of democracy in 2019.
So far, local media have suffered the brunt of the law, which imposes penalties of up to life imprisonment for widely defined crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Apple Daily, the largest pro-democracy newspaper in the city, was forced to close in June after authorities froze its assets and arrested senior executives and editors. Public broadcaster RTHK had its editorial independence gutted under the management of a newly installed career bureaucrat with no media experience.
However, foreign journalists have not been immune to climate change.
In a recent poll of FCC members, 84 percent of respondents said working conditions have “changed for the worse” since the safety law was imposed, and 91 percent expressed concern about plans to introduce a law to address so-called “fake news”. 56% of respondents said they had self-censored or avoided certain topics, while 46% said they planned to leave the city or considered it.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry office in Hong Kong rejected the FCC investigation results, accusing the press club of “meddling in Hong Kong affairs”.
In August, veteran British journalist Stephen Vines, former FCC president, announced that he had left Hong Kong due to the “white terror” in the city and a “cumulative series of alarming events, both personal and political”.
Last year, the New York Times said it would move some of its regional operations to Seoul in response to the law, with the Washington Post shortly after announcing the South Korean capital as the home of its new Asian headquarters.
A reporter from a prominent Hong Kong-based international media outlet told Al Jazeera he expected further expulsions of foreign journalists in the coming months, as well as the introduction of special visas for journalists and a “fake news” law.
“If the granting of visas becomes unpredictable – as it is in mainland China – media companies will inevitably get up and leave,” the reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They will keep a core of journalists etc. to cover Hong Kong and China, but why would you risk having sales staff, technology specialists, finance departments, regional publishers, etc. problematic. There is no point in staying if this becomes reality. “
An employee at another international outlet in the city said she would be “shocked” if more media outlets had not had similar difficulties as the Economist.
“In the end, I think Hong Kong could become as restrictive a media environment as mainland China. For me, the big question is whether it will take a few years or a few decades, “she said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Beijing has repeatedly dismissed concerns about the decline of media freedom in the semi-autonomous territory. Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters that the number of visa holders working with foreign media went from 98 to 628 in the year through April.
Wang described the figures as “a faithful reflection of the views and perceptions of Hong Kong’s socioeconomic and journalistic environment of people from all walks of life, including the printing industry.”
The Hong Kong government did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera in time for publication.
De Changy, the former FCC president, said there is no doubt that dark clouds loom over Hong Kong’s future as an international media hub.
“You can no longer report freely from within and you can’t travel to the region either,” de Changy said, referring to Hong Kong’s strict “zero COVID” policy that requires between 14 and 21 days of hotel quarantine for arrivals.
“So what are the remaining good reasons to stay in Hong Kong? Everyone is asking these questions right now. “