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Hong Kong journalists urge government to drop plans for fake news law, as survey reveals belief that freedom of press is deteriorating in the city

November 5, 2021 GMT

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong has urged the government to reconsider its plan to pass a fake news law, as a survey found that more than 80 per cent of members believed press freedom in the city had deteriorated.

Of the 99 journalists questioned from August to October this year, 84 per cent said the working environment for the media in the city had “changed for the worse” since Beijing imposed the national security law in June last year.

Ninety-one per cent also indicated they were concerned about the looming fake news law, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vowed to bring in to combat doxxing, hate speech and misinformation amid the coronavirus pandemic, and after the social unrest of 2019. She said in the summer that the planned law was still being studied.

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“These results clearly show that assurances that Hong Kong still enjoys press freedom, guaranteed under the Basic Law, are not enough,” said Keith Richburg, the FCC president.

“More steps need to be taken to restore confidence among journalists and to make sure Hong Kong maintains its decades-long reputation as a welcoming place for the international media.”

Government officials, including Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung, have expressed their support for the planned law.

In April, Tang accused the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper of “inciting hatred” when it published a photograph of a young girl pointing a toy gun at her classmate during the city’s first National Security Education Day, while juxtaposed against an image from 2019 showing a controversial police operation when officers stormed an MTR train compartment in pursuit of protesters.

During the anti-government protests two years ago both the opposition and pro-Beijing camps accused each other of using half-truths, carefully edited video and selective reporting to sway followers on social media.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak last year, Hong Kong was gripped by rumours of impending shortages of essentials, which started panic buying ” a situation also seen in other countries.

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The survey found that 86 per cent of respondents have also noted the challenges of finding willing sources to be quoted for news stories since the security law was enacted, with even relatively neutral topics deemed too political by interviewees.

One FCC member was quoted in the survey as saying that previously sources had been more open to speak on any topic within reason, while publications had no real concerns about what they could publish, or on protecting people who did speak to them.

“Now, many people are reluctant or refuse to talk on sensitive subjects, and our organisation, especially after the raids on Apple Daily, is much more cautious about data security and the ability to protect sources,” the member said.

Fifty-six per cent of respondents added that they practised some self-censorship or avoided reporting on what might be considered sensitive stories.

Another member believed some topics, such as independence in Hong Kong, would need to be carefully considered before being covered in detail.

Journalists in Hong Kong have also recently faced challenges when using government information for news reporting purposes. This month, the government tightened access to two databases ” the Land Registry and the Companies Registry ” prompting warnings that the move would undermine press freedom.

Earlier this year, RTHK freelance producer Bao Choy Yuk-ling was convicted of providing false statements and fined HK$6,000 (US$771) for citing “other traffic and transport related matters” when accessing a government vehicle ownership database as part of her research for a documentary on a 2019 mob attack at Yuen Long MTR station. News reporting was not an available option in the field where users stated their purpose for accessing the database.

The FCC on Thursday urged the government to “heed the concerns of our members and take action to restore confidence among working journalists in the city” and to protect Hong Kong’s international reputation for press freedom.

Meanwhile, Richburg added the organisation would continue to conduct similar surveys on a regular basis to gauge sentiment among members.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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