Human Right Salon: How do journalists in censored countries coexist with the political red lines?

14 Apr

Human Right Salon: How do journalists in censored countries coexist with the political red lines?

In the face of censorship and shrinking press freedom, media workers in China, Hong Kong and Malaysia have to use their wits to get around the political red lines. Amnesty International Hong Kong on 26th March successfully organised an online Human Right Salon to facilitate the sharing and discussion of press freedom. We have invited Stella Tsang, the China desk journalist of Hong Kong Citizen News, and Li Wayloon, the News Editor of Malaysiakini, an independent media in Malaysia, to share with locals on how journalists in heavily censored countries coexist with red lines.

“Arriving at the scene to do reporting is already met with lots of constraints. But when they return to their media agencies, they still have to face further censorship.” Stella, described the challenges faced by journalists in China. On “sensitive” days like the anniversary of the death of Zhao Ziyang and, the death of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government will be on high alert. COVID-19 pandemic has also given the government a new pretext to restrain reporters from contacting family members or visiting the cemetery on the grounds of epidemic prevention. Reporters have to get around the obstruction and restrictions by of the authorities to continue the interviews.

“Reporters walking on a tightrope”

Malaysian media have seen the restrictions on press relaxed as the 60-year authoritarian rule came to an end after the electoral defeat of “National Front”  in 2018. Wayloon Li recalled that during the rule of the old government,  there were a number of laws restricting freedom of speech, and the police even beat up reporters who were interviewing at the scene. Malaysiakini in which Lee worked, was also raided and searched by the police when 19 computers were confiscated and the operation of the editorial department paralyzed. With the more liberal government in power, restrictions on press freedom were significantly relaxed. However, as the new government fell in less than two years, the old government continued to suppress the media after returning to power.

During the sharing, Wayloon cited an old saying: “as reporters (in Malaysia), we are like walking on a  tightrope.”, meaning they must be very careful when reporting in Malaysia to avoid being targeted by the government. Last year, Malaysiakini was accused of contempt of court as a reader criticized the judiciary by posting a comment on its online forum. The court found the media guilty and demanded it to pay a huge fine of about HKD $950,000 within three days. Fortunately, Malaysiakini managed to pay the fine after initiating successful online crowdfunding, and with public support, it survived the government’s suppression.

Stella and Li Wayloon sharing their experiences with the participants in Human Right Salon

Speaking of news censorship in China, Stella said that Hong Kong reporters must first apply to the Liaison Office and get approval to report in the Mainland. They must also apply for permission to report on official events. Therefore, the authorities have always had an idea of the movement of Hong Kong reporters, and“ the government may have meals with the journalists on significant days”. She said that it is not appropriate to confront the government in China head-to-head. Instead, reporters must use their wisdom and some clever tricks. She recalled when she tried to report on a bridge collapse accident, as the government was cautious about the number of casualties, the scene had already been cordoned off when she arrived. Some local reporters deployed drones to take pictures from a high altitude, and the government had to send out signals to interfere them in response. According to Stella, even in China, there are still many journalists who want to fight against the political red lines. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many news organizations sent reporters to interview and wrote many reports, but in the end, these reports were barred from publishing.

How about Hong Kong reporters?

Will Hong Kong’s press freedom become the same as China’s in the foreseeable future? “The direction may be the same”, said Stella, “but at least our online world is not censored and blocked”. News censorship system in China has been established for many years, but in contrast, Hong Kong media is still relatively independent at this moment, and the media face relatively few restrictions.

Wayloon believes in a political environment full of red lines, the importance of independent media and citizen reporters to deliver information outside the establishment is more prominent. He also emphasizes that we citizens can still do our best to bring a little change to society. “If you believe you can do something for the community, you can be a journalist, but even if you are not a journalist, as long as you have a mobile phone, you can report on your own at any time, or document injustices and put them online. As his editor-in-chief often encourages him: “press freedom is like squeezing the toothpaste. It is hard to sneeze it out, but it is equally hard to take it back”. He hopes that Hong Kong people who aspire to work in the news industry can continue to defend press freedom.