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Setting“red lines”or testing the boundaries


Editor's note: The message was written by Mr. Keith Richburg, Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) of the University of Hong Kong for the Centre's monthly newsletter: July 2020.

Keith Richburg, director of JMSC, HKU. Photo: JMSC

Message from Keith

To say this unusual year has brought unprecedented challenges would be an understatement. I'd like to take this opportunity to let you know how we at JMSC are responding to two of the biggest.

The first of course is the coronavirus, which first appeared in Hong Kong around the Lunar New Year and, as of this writing, has led to more than 1,500 cases and 10 deaths. While Hong Kong has fared better than much of the region and the world, Covid-19 still meant disruptions to our teaching plans and the cancellation of some planned events.

The big question is for September and the start of the 2020-21 academic year. Our plan now is for a full return of face-to-face teaching in classrooms at Eliot Hall in September, but following strict social distancing guidelines and making sure there is some online component to our classes for any overseas students who may not be able to join us on time, either because of the quarantine rules or the disruptions in air travel.

The University is planning for a return to classroom teaching, but the campus might look and feel less crowded, as some of the larger lecture hall classes will be moved online.

The situation could of course change, depending on the course the virus takes in the coming weeks. Our goal remains to provide top quality in-person journalism instruction here on campus, but making sure we keep our students and staff healthy and safe, and follow government guidelines.

The second major challenge is the passage of the new National Security Law, which creates four new criminal categories, for secession, terrorism, subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. Of particular concern for us as journalists and journalism teachers is Article 9 of the new law, which is about strengthening "guidance, supervision and regulation" over schools and the media, and Article 54, which says the new mainland National Security Supervising Agency set up in Hong Kong will "strengthen the management of international organisations"—including non-government groups and news agencies of foreign countries.

The new law also gives the police sweeping powers to conduct warrantless searches, surveillance and eavesdropping, and to force journalists and internet companies to turn over their notes and data.

Many have been asking what this means for the future of press freedom, academic freedom and the teaching of journalism. Is there even a future for journalism in Hong Kong?

At the moment, the specifics of the new law are vague, and that vagueness is deliberate.  By not spelling out precisely what actions or words count as secession or subversion—by not clearly delineating Beijing's "red lines"—it gives the authorities the power and leeway to apply the law as they see fit, while forcing everyone into a defensive mode of timidity and self-censorship to avoid possible transgressions. That includes journalists, academics and others in the public space.

We do not intend to do anything differently at JMSC, as we adhere to our mission of training the next generation of reporters and imbuing them with journalism's international best practices. That means teaching journalism that is fact-based, fair and unbiased, and that gives voice to the voiceless and continues to speak truth to power. The role of journalism is to hold public officials and powerful institutions accountable and to tell stories that need to be told. The biggest danger for press freedom in Hong Kong is if journalists start to self-censor out of fear, and we don't intend to do that ourselves or teach that to our students.

Journalists in Hong Kong will need to learn to operate differently than they have in the past—performing journalism more like their counterparts in mainland China, or in other authoritarian or quasi-democratic countries where the press is severely restricted. Reporters will have to exercise heightened sensitivity about protecting the identities of their sources and data. They will need to navigate around the invisible and shifting "red lines," the same way reporters in, say, Thailand, have to steer around strict lèse-majesté laws against insulting the king, or how journalists in Malaysia or Indonesia tiptoe around Muslim blasphemy laws.

China itself is one of the world's most restrictive countries for journalists—but there is still great journalism coming from inside the Mainland, including exposes on the Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang and the plight of Wuhan at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.

The future of journalism in Hong Kong depends on whether journalists are now going to cower in a defensive crouch, setting "red lines" in their own heads and giving in to the temptation of self-censorship. Or if they carry on, pushing the limits, testing the boundaries with hard-hitting, fact-based and well-documented stories that are beyond refutation.

Until someone tells us otherwise, we are going to continue teaching the latter. We aren't changing, and we're not going anywhere.

Keith Richburg
Director of the JMSC


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