A veteran Hong Kong journalist’s choice to coexist with censorship

Image from Chris Yeung Commentary's Facebook page.

Guest contributor Chris Yeung. The following article was originally written in Chinese and translated into English by Oiwan Lam, Globalvoices’ East Asia Editor.

I have been in the field of journalism for nearly 40 years in 2024. I have never left the field of journalism since I started my career with mainstream newspapers, South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Economic Journal, and then changed course to the online media outlet, the Citizen News, which I founded with media friends. After the closure of “Citizen News” in early January 2022, I set up a YouTube channel, “Chris Yeung’s Commentary“, two months later, in late March, making daily commentary on current affairs. Of the almost 40 years of journalist work, I spend the second half on news commentary and analysis.

News involves people and events, facts and opinions, and it is often difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, as the reality is full of contradictions and controversies. The role and responsibility of journalists is to report the facts, discover the truth, inform the public, analyse the legal and sensible aspects of an incident, and help the public understand and judge for themselves what is right and wrong.

The Hong Kong that many Hongkongers knew in the past, both during the British colonial era and for a long period of time after the handover to China in 1997, was not a fully democratic society. But people could enjoy a high degree of freedom and freedom of expression as the rule of law and an independent judiciary could protect human rights and freedom.  While the remuneration of journalistic work was generally not as good as that of other professions, the satisfaction and public recognition gained from chasing after and telling the truth could not be replaced by money. For quite some time, the media industry has become increasingly difficult to operate as the space for freedom has been narrowing, but there are still many journalists who hold on and young people walking the journalistic path.

In July 2020, the National Security Law came into effect in Hong Kong, and the environment for freedom of speech and freedom of the press was completely altered. With the “red line” of endangering national security and sedition looming over the horizon, fear and anxiety permeate the community. Self-censorship has become a part of life and a “necessary evil” for journalists and editors. For journalists who believe in the basic principles of journalism and who insist on seeking and telling the truth, self-censorship is evil, but the choices before us are either to give up journalism or to coexist and manoeuvre with the “evil”. Both are equally difficult choices; I chose the latter.

After the official trial of the Apple Daily case involving the news outlet's founder, Jimmy Lai Chi-ying, and a group of former senior staff members under  National Security Law and the Sedition Law opened, one morning around early January, I went to the West Kowloon District Court to observe the trial. During the intermission, I ran into one of the barristers who had taken part in the defence. The first thing he said to me was, “I thought you had left (Hong Kong)!” In the past two years, from time to time, I could find netizens asking, “Are you in Hong Kong?”  on my YouTube channel’s message board. On another occasion, when my video commentary, which is usually aired on weekday evenings, did not appear due to busy schedules and an overseas trip, I found a netizen message asking, “I haven't seen the program on air the past two days. I wish you peace!” All these exchanges trigger an inexplicable sorrow in my heart.

I did not ask my lawyer friend why he thought I had left Hong Kong that day, but I believe the reason was plain and clear. After the enactment of the National Security Law, the freedom of the press has fallen off a cliff, the voice of the independent media has been further weakened, a large number of journalists, regardless of their ages and experiences, have emigrated, some political commentators have relocated to safer places overseas to continue their commentaries, and those who have stayed in Hong Kong have either chosen to shut up and shelve their pens, or “being muted”. Leaving Hong Kong has become the norm, and it is an anomaly for them to stay and continue with sensitive journalistic work.

Having reported on Hong Kong for nearly 40 years as a journalist, I used to think that I had a better understanding of yesterday's Hong Kong and its state of affairs today, as well as a better ability to predict its tomorrow. Yet, the changes that have taken place in Hong Kong in recent years, in terms of the political system, the operation of the government, the way officials work, the use of power and counterbalances, as well as the basic values and principles of society, have become unrecognizable and incomprehensible to many. To cite an example, is the sharp increase in the police's issuance of fines for illegal parking in recent years a reflection of “legalism ruling Hong Kong”? (Legalism is a school of thought adopted in the Qin Dynasty in ancient China) Or is it a reflection of the government’s budget deficit crisis? Or are both equally relevant? It has become a riddle. No one seems to be able to figure out what is going on about many daily happenings in Hong Kong. After the tremendous political storm, the knowledge and experience accumulated from observing the changes in Hong Kong in the past seem no longer applicable to Hong Kong. What can we rely on for news analysis?

In addition, the “red line” is difficult to grasp, and the risk is huge. When journalists try to touch politically sensitive issues, in front of them is a danger rather than an opportunity. After nearly 40 years of journalism, I have come across many journalists who joined the profession in different periods of time. They are driven by a sense of justice to speak for the people, to uncover and speak for the truth against the strong current. The free environment has changed drastically, and the new norm is that journalism must follow the official line and avoid “making noise” that may trigger drawbacks that upset those with power. The risk of commenting has increased. Critical voices can easily touch the nerves of those in power, inducing the whims of the stability control agents. Once they are identified and targeted, their nightmares begin. Is there still space for news commentary? How is that possible?

Two years ago, my colleague and I held a press conference to announce the closure of the Citizen News. A reporter asked me if I would also stop writing. Before that day, Apple Daily and Stand News had shut down, respectively. Many commentators had shelved their pens. Before the press conference, I had prepared how I should explain the Citizen News's decision, and I did not think about my own future. Under the mighty storm, the Citizen News was like a rowboat, and it could not survive through. I could not imagine whether there was still room for me to carry on my work. At that time, my mind was blank, and I only replied with my intuition that I did not feel that my journalism career had come to an end. After the closure of the Citizen News, my news commentary on the platform was suspended, but the news would not wait. Every day, there are still many people and events that need to be recorded and analysed by journalists. I have never overestimated my personal influence and have little expectation to change society. My only belief is that it is better to have one more voice than one less and that having one more reporter is better than one less. I still remember the words I wrote in the Citizen News a few years ago: “As far as you can go, go as far as you can”.

The news industry often quotes a famous saying of C.P. Scott, a prominent journalist of the British newspaper – The Guardian, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Louis Cha, the founder of Ming Pao Daily News, translated the quote into Chinese as “評論自由,事實神聖”. News must be based on facts, but the same facts can be viewed from different perspectives. The same glass of water can be interpreted as half full or half empty; there is no right or wrong in having different perspectives.

The facts reported in the news are not necessarily the whole truth. The responsibility of journalists is to try their best to find out the truth and facts, report truthfully and honestly, and analyse related issues based on the facts by providing context to help the public understand the matter. Their duty is also to point out the significance of the issue and arouse the public's concern so that they can express their views and address the problem. Through news reporting and analysis, the media performs its social function by informing the public and analysing problems with different viewpoints, monitoring social ills and government dysfunction, and advancing human rights, freedom, and the rule of law.

In the 1980s, when I started my career in journalism, there was “freedom” but “no democracy” in Hong Kong. The political spectrum ranging from “left, center and right”, pro-Communist and pro-Taiwan voices coexisted peacefully in the society. As colonial rule approached its final days, the pace of liberalization and democratization accelerated, civil society matured, and the media industry entered a golden age, with news commentaries flourishing with a diversity of views and very few taboos. There were still effective “draconian laws” in the law, but the government exercised self-restraint, the media also exercised self-restraint, and it was a wonderful era of freedom of the press, which has now vanished. The effective “draconian law”, which was not used in the past, does not mean that it does not exist or has become ineffective. Once it is activated, the “red line” of sedition and endangering national security seems to be everywhere, and journalists find it hard to accommodate.

Politics is about the affairs of people. People always have different opinions. Conflicts will naturally lead to controversies, and stirring up controversies may make the government feel insecure and the society vulnerable. Officials describe Hong Kong as “advancing from stability to prosperity”, but they are also afraid of chaos and are constantly on the alert to prevent chaos. In an open and free society, conflicts and clashes are commonplace, and it is normative for the media to handle related news reports and commentaries in accordance with professional standards and journalistic values.

In the wake of the 2019 political turmoil, the Beijing central authorities emphasized that Hong Kong cannot afford to be in chaos any more, and pro-China advocates blamed Hong Kong society and the media for being “too free”, with the media amplifying the conflicts, and some of them even accelerating the situation. Under the “chaos prevention” mindset of the ruling echelon, the role of the media has become even more sensitive. While the atmosphere of society is calm on the surface, the nerves of the officials are tense; journalists are faced with a lot of sensitive issues every day that they have to handle. In the past, they only had to consider news value, but now they have to calculate the political risks and consequences over and over again as the risks of reporting on sensitive issues are higher than before, and the risks of making political commentaries are even higher.

After setting up “Chris Yeung’s Commentary” on YouTube near the end of March last year, I met with a former Legislative Councilor on one occasion. She opined that with the shrinking space for speech, it was no longer meaningful to write political commentaries as she could not speak freely. There were also journalists who contended that only by leaving Hong Kong could they write news and commentaries without risk. Their views are not unreasonable.

After the rapid changes in the media environment, many journalists of different generations are faced with the choice of either emigrating and leaving the profession or staying in Hong Kong and remaining in the profession. Those who stay, those who don't want to give up, and those who are still in the news business have their own considerations. Some journalists are convinced that the role and value of journalists will not change due to the adverse environment. Yet, under the dilemma of not being able to avoid sensitive issues and not wanting to fall into the “red line”, they have no choice but to accept that being able to speak freely, say whatever they want, and tell the whole truth can no longer be taken for granted. That said, they are still adhering to the principle of honesty and sincerity in journalism with a good conscience and not telling lies.

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