Hong Kong’s leading media association has hit back at criticism from the security minister, who accused it of infiltrating campuses to “rope in” student journalists as members.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said on Tuesday it “deeply regretted” the “factually wrong” claims made by Secretary for Security Chris Tang in a front-page interview with the city’s Beijing-controlled Ta Kung Pao newspaper.

Chris Tang Ta Kung Pao HKJA
Ta Kung Pao’s front page interview with Secretary for Security Chris Tang, published on September 14, 2021. Photo: Ta Kung Pao screenshot.

The former police chief, who was promoted to lead the Security Bureau in June, accused the HKJA of “breaching professional ethics” by backing the idea that “everyone is a journalist.” He pointed to the composition of the HKJA’s executive committee and questioned the union’s representativeness.

“I noticed HKJA’s executive committee members have always [come from] a few media organisations, there are a lot of student reporters inside…” Tang told Ta Kung Pao.

The current executive committee includes journalists from outlets such as Ming Pao, SCMP, HKFP, RTHK, Stand News and Now TV.

The security chief claimed that the HKJA’s recognition of a 13-old-student reporter contradicted public expectations that journalists must be professionally trained.

Asked if HKJA “deviated” from the requirements for it to be seen as a legally registered labour union, owing to “doubts” over its credibility, Tang said all groups must abide by the law.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

“HKJA’s credibility and its registration are two different things. If any organisations or groups breach the law, including the national security law, [they have to] bear responsibility,” the official said.

Tang’s open criticism of the HKJA came amid an unprecedented crackdown on local civil society groups, including labour unions. Another Beijing-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po, last month labelled the HKJA as an “anti-government political organisation” that defends “fake news.” It listed five “evil deeds” and said it should be regulated.

In response to Tang’s accusation, the association said he had “ignored the facts.” Only around 13 per cent – or fewer than 60 – of its members were students, who had always been eligible to apply for membership rather than being “roped in,” it said.

Hong Kong Journalists Association. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Thirteen per cent of the members: that should not be able to become our group’s ‘backbone’,” the HKJA said, adding it has been “very concerned” about the well-being of teenage reporters and would urge them to avoid dangerous places.

Tang may have been referring to a May 2020 incident where police officers berated a teenage boy bearing a press vest at a protest in a mall. Speaking in a personal capacity, the then-HKJA chief Chris Yeung said the student did not breach any law.

HKJA will ‘not fold easily’

The journalist group – which has operated in Hong Kong for more than five decades – cited the Basic Law as saying Hongkongers should enjoy press freedom and the right to publish. It said Tang had agreed that citizens were entitled to report in the streets, when he was police chief and met four press groups.

“To put it simply, we did not advocate the so-called ‘everyone is a journalist.’ Our group is only safeguarding press freedom protected under the Basic Law,” the HKJA said.

Press freedom journalist police
Hong Kong journalists standing inside a police cordoned area. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The association also accused Ta Kung Pao of not “defending professionalism in journalistic work” and creating public misunderstanding.

“In recent months, the government has repeatedly said it had to tackle ‘fake news’ and ‘misinformation.’ Ta Kung Pao, responsible for the interview, not only failed to verify the facts, it also did not seek a response from us.”

In an interview on Tuesday with RTHK, HKJA chief Ronson Chan said: “We will not dissolve easily and we will do our best to discharge our duty until the last moment.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.