Working conditions have markedly worsened for journalists in Hong Kong since Beijing imposed its national security law for the city last June, an anonymous survey conducted by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) has found.

The survey results released on Friday showed 46 per cent of respondents were considering or had plans to leave the city citing the decline in press freedom, while 56 per cent admitted to self-censoring or avoiding reporting on sensitive topics to at least some degree.

FCC. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

Eighty-four per cent of the respondents, meanwhile, believed that working conditions in the city have deteriorated, with 86 per cent saying sources were not willing to speak or be quoted on issues deemed to be sensitive.

“Concern has been heightened by the fact that, since the enactment of the National Security Law, there has been a drastic decline in the willingness of sources to be quoted,” the report read.

Other concerns included digital or physical surveillance, shifting “red lines,” and obstacles in obtaining work visas. Forty-eight per cent of the respondents said they were unsure whether certain images would contravene the security law,

The majority of respondents, however, said they had not come across explicit censorship of sensitive stories in their newsrooms, while 36 per cent said they experienced “slight censorship.”

An officer monitors a reporter’s recording. Photo: Jimmy Lam/HKFP.

The survey was the first of its kind to be conducted by the FCC. President Keith Richburg told HKFP it was prompted by growing concerns over the state of the city’s press freedoms.

“We would like to conduct this kind of survey on a regular, recurring basis so we can continue to gauge the sentiment among our members who are working actively as journalists and let the results be made publicly available,” the president said.

He added that he hoped foreign journalists could still stay on in the city: “Hong Kong traditionally has been a convenient, welcoming place for foreign correspondents to base themselves to cover China, Southeast Asia and the wider Asian region… We’ve long been part of the DNA of Hong Kong,” he said.

The FCC sent the survey to 396 reporter members, and received 99 responses. Seventy respondents worked for foreign media, while the rest worked for local outlets.

‘Fake news’ law

The survey also found 91 per cent of respondents said they were “very concerned” about government plans to introduce a law against “fake news.”

The city’s security chief and pro-Beijing lawmakers have repeatedly called on the government to regulate disinformation. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the legislation was on the horizon during her policy address last month.

Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

“Amid the uncertain working environment for reporters in Hong Kong, respondents noted that fake news laws have been created by authoritarian governments around the world to suppress unfavourable coverage,” the report read.

One survey respondent said: “It’s already clear to me that officials in high office in Hong Kong believe that ‘fake news’ is a label they can apply to news or commentary that they don’t like, regardless of whether it is ‘fake,’ and that a fake news law could be used broadly against critics in the same way that they have used the national security law.”

‘Engage with reporters’

The club called on the government to reconsider plans to implement the legislation: “The FCC urges the Hong Kong government to heed the concerns of our members and take action to restore confidence among working journalists in the city… We ask the government to consider very carefully the impact a ‘fake news law’ would have not only on the media here but also on Hong Kong’s international reputation for press freedom.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Richburg told HKFP that the government “could start by engaging with correspondents and journalists, including the FCC, to hear our concerns directly before drafting a law targeting so-called ‘fake news.'”

The FCC has previously urged the city’s security chief clarify his claims that “foreign forces” were using “fake news” to stir up hatred against the government.

The survey reflects growing concern about the state of press freedom in Hong Kong after the city’s only pro-democracy newspaper was forced to shutter in June following a national security crackdown which saw two police raids and its leadership arrested and charged.

The city’s press union has also warned press freedom was at record lows.

Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.