Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairperson Chris Yeung says that the government is concerned that digital media platforms may protest, rather than cover news, if allowed into press conferences. The government has long-banned digital-only outlets from attending its media events and obtaining its press releases, despite a chorus of condemnation from local and international watchdogs.

On a Now TV programme, Yeung – who is also the chief writer at digital outlet Citizen News – said that the discussions on the ban with the government’s Information Services Department (ISD) have been ongoing for years. “Even the Director of Information Services has changed a couple of times,” Yeung said.

Chris Yeung. Photo: Now TV screenshot.

Yeung said that discussions led nowhere, but a major change came when Chief Executive Carrie Lam attended a HKJA forum during her election campaign, and made it clear that she wanted to relax the rules.

Lam mentioned that she had welcomed digital media during her election campaign, but as of now online outlets remain barred from her weekly press briefings. On Wednesday, Carrie Lam expressed hope about reaching a consensus on the issue as soon as possible.

Yeung said that – from his understanding – there were government departments worried about lifting the ban, because they may see some platforms as committing “social activism” rather than news gathering, and that these outlets may “protest rather than report” on policies during press conferences.

However, Yeung said that all official events, such as public consultations, carry the risk of running into issues of maintaining order, and that these issues were unavoidable. Yeung also said that there were laws in place so as to guarantee that those who cause disruption would have to be held accountable: “Several candidates allowed online media during their election campaign, and I don’t recall there [being any problems].”

Carrie Lam. File Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Responding to rumours that former chief executive Leung Chun-ying was opposed to online media, Yeung said: “It’s not something that can be verified – and I do not recall him speaking about the matter in detail… The Information Services Department and Home Affairs Bureau do not have much objection, but I understand that it’s mostly the police and the security-related departments [that are rather concerned].”

When confronted by an HKFP reporter in July, Leung said that the situation was a matter for the next administration.

Photo: Reporters without Borders.

Yeung also said that, although it was easy to set up a digital media outlet, the government should not assume that the quality of the platforms were poor merely because they had fewer staff and a smaller scale. Rather, the focus should be on whether the media outlet observes journalistic principles.

Last December, the ISD told HKFP that it is “is reviewing the current practice and is striving to complete the review as soon as practicable. We will communicate with the industry on the outcome and recommendations when available.” It has not given a timetable or end date for the “review.”

International press freedom watchdogs the Committee the Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the ban. NGO Amnesty International also urged the government to reform the policy.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.