Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) has overwhelmingly polled in favour of a motion relating to press freedom. More than half of the board members abstained from the vote.

The non-binding motion was raised at the club’s annual general meeting on Monday, just weeks after the FCC made the decision to scrap the Human Rights Press Awards over legal concerns. The move was widely criticised and sparked questions about the club’s commitment to upholding press freedom in the city.

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

The motion called for the FCC to “prominently display its mission statement on its website and reaffirm its commitment to speaking out publicly against threats to press freedom in Hong Kong transparently.”

“In future cases when concerns are raised that acting on the club’s mission gives rise to legal risks, the club shall seek written legal advice to be shared with the board from practising lawyers experienced in giving legal advice to international media,” the motion read.

It also stated that the FCC board “shall formulate and publish a policy committing to the aforementioned principles within 90 days.”

HKFP learned that the motion was written by a member who resigned from the club’s board and reporters who quit the Press Freedom Committee, the body that oversaw the Human Rights Press Awards, over the cancellation.

According to figures shared by a member of the FCC, which were obtained from the club, the motion received 1,121 “for” votes and 108 “against” votes, while there were 354 abstentions.

Votes are not equally weighted, with members who work for international media allocated 25 votes.

Because the motion was non-binding, there is no obligation for the board to uphold its commitments.

The FCC was slated to hold the Human Rights Press Awards earlier this month. But in late April, the club announced that it would not hold the awards as the club did not “wish unintentionally to violate the law.” Sources close to the matter told HKFP it was because disbanded outlet Stand News had won a number of titles.

When the awards were abruptly cancelled in late April, members noted that a statement describing the club’s core mission – to “promote and facilitate journalism of the highest standard” – had disappeared from the “FCC Statements” page on its website. It has not been restored as of Tuesday.

The statement remains on the “Human Rights Press Awards” page of the FCC website.

A journalism school at Arizona State University, in the US, said it would take over the organisation and hosting of the awards.

Board members abstain

Of the FCC’s 16 board members, 14 were in attendance at Monday’s meeting. Among them, four voted “for” and one person voted “against,” HKFP learned. Nine abstained from voting.

Human Rights Press Awards
Human Rights Press Awards. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Speaking on Tuesday, Richburg – who abstained – said the meeting went well and was “cathartic” for members who wanted to air their views.

He told HKFP he abstained from the vote because he “didn’t like the second part of the motion,” which called on the board to obtain written legal advice from lawyers in the event that the club was concerned about risk.

“What type of legal advice, whether you get oral or verbal or written advice, should be up to the president at the time,” Richburg said, adding that the wording suggested that the club had not sought written legal advice.

Richburg also said some lawyers may not be willing to give advice in written form.

HKFP reached out to the member who polled “against.”

Since the passing of the Beijing-mandated national security law almost two years ago, rights groups have sounded the alarm over what many say is a decline in Hong Kong’s press freedom.

media journalism press freedom
Reporters at a press conference. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Independent newspaper Apple Daily shut down in June 2021 after authorities froze its assets and arrested staff under the national security law. Around six months later, Stand News also folded following an office raid and arrests. Two former employees have been charged with allegedly conspiring to publish “seditious publications” under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance. Citizen News closed days after Stand News disbanded, citing concerns about staff safety.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai has been remanded in custody since December 2020 and is serving time over protest-related charges. He is also facing charges under the Beijing-imposed national security law, as well as the colonial-era sedition law.

Hong Kong fell 68 places to 148th in a press freedom index published by watchdog Reporters Without Borders this year, putting it below Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines.

The author of this article is a member of the FCC.

Correction 21:20: A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced the University of Arizona, as opposed to Arizona State University. We regret the error.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.