Finding the space to speak: Journalism professor Francis Lee on Hong Kong’s changing media landscape

Francis Lee signs copies of his recent Chinese-language book about how to read the news at the Hong Kong Book Fair in July 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The original version of this report was written by Irene Chan and published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on October 7, 2023. The following edited version has been published on Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

The media landscape has changed dramatically since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city in 2020, with outlets closed and journalists put on trial and jailed.

Self-censorship is increasingly inevitable, says journalism scholar Francis Lee – but he also stresses that should not be seen as surrender, particularly for those who strive to maintain space for professional journalism.

Lee, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, has spoken extensively to journalists in the city about how they “manage risk” amid increasing legal and political uncertainty:

To simply avoid risk is not risk management. To manage risk is to take risks when necessary.

After his findings were published in July, Lee told HKFP in an interview conducted in Cantonese:

The emergent ‘risk culture’ in the city was not limited to those in the media. Today, anyone who is still involved in the public sphere in Hong Kong will constantly assess and manage risks.

That also applied to him. As a scholar specialising in journalism and social movements, Lee has played an active role in the city’s public sphere, such as presenting his research on the controversial “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” protest slogan. He appeared in the courtroom as an expert witness for the defence in the city’s first national security trial.

The court later ruled that the phrase was capable of inciting secession, one of four crimes listed under the national security law.

Unlike many public intellectuals who have chosen to keep a low profile or leave the city, Lee has continued to study civil society and give talks on press freedom in Hong Kong. This summer, he published a Chinese-language book on how to read the news, covering topics such as media funding, political affiliation, professionalism, and disinformation:

When there is something you really want to do, you just have to try it. You know things may be different in Hong Kong today, and you might feel a bit worried or scared, but in the end you just have to give it a go.

Lee's research has followed Hong Kong’s changing political landscape closely. He has studied the media’s role in the 2003 mass protest, the city's collective memory of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and the internet’s role in social movements in recent years, including 2019's protests and unrest.

When the national security law reached the media sector – resulting in the closure of the city’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, and independent online media outlets Stand News and Citizen News – Lee felt he should study the changes.

Apple Daily and Stand News stopped operations on June 24, 2021, and December 29, 2021 respectively, following police raids on their newsrooms and the arrests of editors and management staff.

In the wake of these events, Lee’s research team conducted 43 in-depth interviews with journalists and editors from 12 media outlets in the first half of 2022. Amid a rise in self-censorship, Lee also identified a strong sense of resilience – journalists have developed various ways of assessing risks, such as studying the law and relevant court cases, staying alert to political “signals,” and evaluating situations based on knowledge of mainland China's political system and repressive measures.

He also pointed out:

Some journalists said they had made a ‘conscious choice’ to reduce risk through minimal or ‘acceptable’ self-censorship, like carefully selecting which words to use when reporting on more sensitive topics or incorporating soft news to show ‘the outlet did not confront the government all the time.’

One journalist told the research team that his outlet used the term “typhoon protection measures” to describe procedures employed when covering the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. For example, when covering activists’ speeches, they would choose neutral terms to avoid being perceived as advocating on anyone’s behalf.

Lee explained the phenomena in an article in a local newspaper back in July:

What we can see is an ongoing negotiation through which journalists try to reconcile the pressure to self-censor with their sense of professionalism…this process was essential in ‘preventing risk management from becoming sheer risk avoidance.’

Hong Kong has seen a drastic decline in press freedom, according to an international index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. It dropped to 148th in 2022 from 80th in 2021 before rising eight places to 140th in 2023 – still near the bottom.

Separately, the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s Press Freedom Index dropped to new lows last year, with journalists saying they hesitated to criticise the central government.

While freedom of the media was low, Lee said the situation had “reached a balance” this year as there had been no new legal cases launched against media organisations or reporters. Additionally, independent media outlet The Collective was launched, and existing ones, such as Inmediahk, remained in operation.  Lee shared his observations:

Every authoritarian country tries to reach a balance in the end. Through suppressing some voices to [what authorities see as] an acceptable level, other voices and media, which do not have great influence, can exist for a while. That’s what already happened in Hong Kong […] But looking into the future, questions remain over whether space [for freedom] will continue to shrink. And this is something you can’t anticipate. It is subject to the nation’s policy and the changing international landscape.

He returned to Hong Kong in 2003 after obtaining a PhD in political communications from Stanford University in the US. That year, he witnessed around 500,000 Hongkongers rally against Article 23 – Hong Kong’s own national security law – and became interested in studying civil society, social movements and their interactions with the media.

He is frequently asked if he intends to leave Hong Kong in the near future. His answer is always the same: “Never say never.” But he still feels he “can do something“ in Hong Kong, at least for now.

When a publisher approached him about writing a book to promote journalism to the public, Lee said yes without hesitation. While he did not see any risk in sharing his findings in a book, when it came to giving a talk at the Hong Kong Book Fair in July, Lee said he started to worry.

It’s an open venue, and you just can’t control what questions will be thrown at you. Later, I decided to give it a try.

The risk paid off, and the event went smoothly.

This year, he has visited universities in Denmark and Japan to talk about the state of press freedom in Hong Kong. He has also taken a sabbatical, travelling between Taipei, Vancouver and Hong Kong, sharing his observations and findings on Hong Kong’s media landscape. He said:

You have to be careful with your words, avoiding any chance of being mistaken as linked to Hong Kong independence, and never answering questions such as: ‘What can we do overseas [to support Hong Kong]?’

As he has explained in his book, the space to speak out shifts constantly in Hong Kong:

When reports on certain genres and topics disappear, we know that some space no longer exists. When a reporter published a serious piece, we saw space for journalism. Profession and liberty are things earned through actions.

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