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Monitors are left on desks after police confiscated the computers as evidence in the newsroom at Apple Daily headquarters in Hong Kong, June 17, 2021.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

The white facade of the journalism school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is emblazoned with three words: “Inherit. Innovate. Inspire.” But last year, with most students learning online due to the pandemic, one lecturer began signing off with a different phrase: “Let’s have zero infections. Zero arrests.”

Hong Kong has been practically COVID-19-free since February, with schools returning to in-person teaching. But the potential for arrest – for getting into trouble over something they write – is something all current and future journalism students will have to come to terms with.

When Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to often violent anti-government protests in 2019, officials promised it would only affect a “tiny handful” of people. But so far, more than 100 people have been arrested under the law, including just about every prominent pro-democracy activist or lawmaker, and major civil society organizations have been forced to close.

The media have also been drastically affected. RTHK, a public broadcaster, has been placed under new leadership and effectively muzzled, with several prominent staff quitting or being forced out. Apple Daily, the city’s most-read pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close, and multiple executives are facing charges under the security law. And last month, Chris Tang, the city’s security secretary, lashed out at the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), accusing it of “infiltrating” schools and “breaching professional ethics.”

Mr. Tang’s comments were made in a front-page interview with Ta Kung Pao, a Beijing-backed newspaper that has repeatedly inveighed against various civil society groups. In August, its sister publication, Wen Wei Po, accused the HKJA of being an “anti-government political organization” that defends “fake news.”

(Disclosure: This reporter is a member of the HKJA and previously sat on its press freedom committee.)

Mr. Tang’s primary complaint was that the HKJA put forward the idea that “everyone can be a journalist.”

Expanding on his remarks at a news conference, he said: “My understanding is that journalists need to be trained and accredited professionally … If a student can be a student journalist, then how professional are the journalists under the association?”

In September last year, police said they would only recognize journalists from outlets registered with the government, as well as “internationally recognized” media organizations, a move the Foreign Correspondents’ Club denounced as a “serious blow for freelancers and student reporters.”

Cédric Alviani, the East Asia bureau chief for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), called the attacks on the HKJA “ridiculous.”

“If you have to be on a government list to be a journalist then you’re not in a country which respects the freedom of the press,” he said, adding that he was concerned about the comments regarding student reporters, fearing it may “soon become a handicap for someone to graduate from a journalism school.”

Hong Kong is home to some of Asia’s best journalism programs, including those at the CUHK and the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Many of the city’s newspapers count on trainee reporters and interns from those schools to operate, as do foreign media based here.

During the 2019 protests, student journalists joined the flood of local and international reporters taking to the streets to document the unrest. Dozens of new publications sprang up, and many young reporters captured key incidents, such as the stabbing of a police officer and an officer shooting an 18-year-old protester with a live round, the first time that had happened.

One CUHK journalism student interviewed for this story said the events of 2019 taught him what the fourth estate means for a society – how it plays a role in overseeing the government.

Other students and reporters who graduated from the city’s universities described a sense of the ground shifting under their feet – of a city that was once one of the freest places in Asia to be a journalist becoming more like mainland China. As with the CUHK student, The Globe and Mail is not identifying them so they could speak without fear of government reprisals.

“I chose Hong Kong because I thought the environment was better – press freedom-wise,” said a former CUHK student from mainland China, who attended the school about 10 years ago. “At the time, we didn’t have any concerns about covering sensitive topics. It was pretty much unheard of to think, ‘This is too sensitive,’ especially as a student.”

It was not until the 2019 protests “that I started to worry a bit.”

By that time, she was working for a prominent newspaper but became concerned that nationalists in China were paying increased attention to the work of mainland reporters in Hong Kong, harassing them online and even posting their personal information.

“It really sent a shock wave through the very tiny mainland community in Hong Kong covering the protests,” she said. “That was a very scary wake-up call, and things have only gone downhill since.”

Still, other interviewees said that, even under the national security law, the environment in Hong Kong remains freer than on the mainland. Journalists can still cover topics that would be censored in China, such as feminist and LGBTQ issues.

Nor are they alone in refusing to write an obituary for journalism in Hong Kong. Keith Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent who heads HKU’s journalism school, said that while concerns about the security law are legitimate, “you can still do journalism in Hong Kong.

“I always tell people: Look, instead of just pounding on the table and saying ‘it didn’t used to be like this,’ learn how to live with it,” Mr. Richburg said. “Act like you’re in the mainland. Learn how to protect your sources, how to talk to people anonymously, how not to record everything and write everything down. I’ve reported this way all my life. I’ve been in authoritarian regimes where people wouldn’t talk openly. But [reporters] here aren’t used to that and they’re still complaining, ‘Oh, my sources won’t talk to me anymore.’ Well, find some new sources.”

Others were more skeptical, however, warning of the potential for widespread self-censorship due to the security law’s broad nature and shifting goalposts. On the mainland, at least the rules are relatively established.

Mr. Alviani, the RSF bureau chief, said there is “good reason” to be frightened by the national security law.

“Any journalist, professional or not, could potentially get a life sentence for something they wrote,” he said. “The law is blurry enough to allow any interpretation or accusation.”

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