It was with a sense of dejection that members of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club press freedom committee met on Sunday. They had been informed that the club’s board had voted the day before to suspend its premier journalism awards over legal fears, and most had decided to resign in protest.
The FCC is one of Hong Kong’s oldest journalistic institutions, founded in Japanese-occupied China in 1943, before relocating to the then-British colony six years later. It was a hub for international media covering China’s turmoils in the middle of the 20th century, wars in Korea and Vietnam and, in 1997, Hong Kong’s own transition to Chinese rule.
A year before that handover, the FCC launched the Human Rights Press Awards, “recognizing journalists in Hong Kong and throughout the region for fearless and distinguished reporting.” The prizes were seen as in line with the club’s stated mission “to promote and facilitate journalism of the highest standard, and to promote press freedom across the region.”
But on Monday, that mission statement appeared to have been removed from the FCC website, and club president Keith Richburg, head of Hong Kong University’s journalism school, announced the awards were being suspended. Since a national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020, Mr. Richburg said, journalists in the city “have been operating under new ‘red lines’ on what is and is not permissible.”
“There remain significant areas of uncertainty and we do not wish unintentionally to violate the law,” he added. It was not clear how exactly the club believes the awards would be in breach of the law.
According to three people familiar with the matter, the decision was made after judges voted to award several prizes to Stand News, a pro-democracy outlet that was forced to shutter in December after multiple executives were arrested. The Globe is not naming the people so they can speak about the confidential discussions.
One member of the FCC’s board, Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Strumpf, resigned in protest of the suspension, as did the majority of the club’s press freedom committee.
Timothy McLaughlin, a correspondent for The Atlantic who resigned his position on the committee, told The Globe and Mail it has “unfortunately become very clear that the club under its current leadership has drastically and willfully deviated from its stated mission of protecting press freedom and speaking up for journalists who are coming under threat.”
Washington Post correspondent and former FCC committee member Shibani Mahtani said she felt the “deepest regret” over the awards being suspended. She described the move as “emblematic” of the self-censorship “many institutions feel forced to subject themselves to in today’s Hong Kong … and entirely indicative of how the national security law has changed the landscape.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the city retained “constitutional safeguards for press freedom” but that “one has to observe the law in exercising your freedom.”
In June last year, the combative pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily shut down after police froze its assets and arrested five top editors and executives, accusing them of colluding with foreign forces. Public broadcaster RTHK has been muzzled, and many journalists have fled the city, concerned for their own safety.
In December, Stand News too was forced to close: its board and senior leadership face charges of sedition, while last week, former columnist Allan Au was arrested for the same offence. Mr. Au had been a judge for the FCC awards.
Stand News was among the most prominent independent media outlets in Hong Kong. Prior to its closing, it had been a refuge of sorts for journalists from Apple Daily and RTHK, and benefited from a surge in donations.
This greatly strengthened the journalism Stand News produced in its final months, said filmmaker Lo Yan-Wai, who was one of the judges for the FCC awards.
Ms. Lo said there was some concern among the judging panel after Stand News swept the Chinese-language awards. “But the journalism comes first.”
She learned of the club’s decision Monday along with everyone else, and described it as “shameful.”
“Many local journalists have no protections at all,” Ms. Lo said. “For the FCC, you can leave any time, you have the passport, so how cowardly is it not to speak out?”
The decision has highlighted longstanding tension between the FCC’s role as a journalistic organization, and as one of the city’s most popular private member’s clubs. Many of those who pay the HK$1,100 ($175) monthly fee are not journalists but bankers and executives, who take advantage of the club’s facilities in the heart of Hong Kong.
There was widespread anger among the non-journalist membership in 2018, when the future of the FCC was put in doubt after pro-independence activist Andy Chan was invited to speak at an event.
The government holds the lease to the FCC’s Lower Albert Road clubhouse, and pro-Beijing figures called for the FCC to be ejected if Mr. Chan was not disinvited. After the talk went ahead, no action against the FCC itself was taken, but vice-president Victor Mallet, an editor at the Financial Times who had hosted Mr. Chan, was denied a routine visa renewal and forced to leave Hong Kong.
Ms. Mahtani said on Twitter the press freedom committee was the key body “that made the FCC so much more than just a bar and restaurant, and a regional force for good.”
With that committee now hollowed out, she said it was time for the FCC to rethink its role, if “it is no longer able to serve its core mission: to defend and promote the press.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of filmmaker Lo Yan-Wai.
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