‘I’m Afraid That I Cannot Be a Journalist Anymore’

Government officials claim that Hong Kong’s media environment is “as vibrant as ever,” another addition to their accrescent portfolio of lies.

An illustration of a fountain pen nib with the flag of Hong Kong in the center.
The Atlantic

In the summer of 2019, Ronson Chan, then an editor for the independent news outlet Stand News, took a delayed honeymoon to Germany with his wife. The timing was terrible. Prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong were at full tilt. Chan was distracted. He checked his phone at all hours, obsessively looking for updates from his colleagues. One attraction, though, was able to grab his attention: the Stasi Museum, in Berlin, which is dedicated to cataloging how East Germany’s secret police and espionage service oppressed the populace.

I met Chan for an interview at a park in Hong Kong  earlier this year, and he mentioned the museum visit unprompted. Perhaps, he joked, the elderly couple exercising across from us could be agents on a mission to monitor our conversations. He wondered aloud, laughing, if microphones were hidden in the trees. Later, in a more serious tone, he told me that seeing how other people lived under state oppression was interesting and helpful. It “may be a good lesson” for those in Hong Kong, he said.

Chan is the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the city’s largest journalism union, and has ample reason to be concerned. His bosses, the former chief editor and the acting editor of Stand News, were both arrested in late December. They were charged with sedition and denied bail. Four former members of the Stand News board were also arrested. Chan was questioned and his apartment searched the same day. He was not charged with a crime. Shortly after the police sweep, Stand News closed. Its presence was wiped from the internet. Another of Chan’s former colleagues is on trial for violating the national-security law, imposed by Beijing in 2020, and facing a possible life sentence. Chan is occasionally followed by reporters from state-controlled media, who regularly attack him in their newspapers. The address of an apartment where his brother and mother live was published online. (It was falsely identified as his residence.)

Despite these incidents, Chan continues to speak out about press freedom and is a stubborn irritant to the government, which has added the line that the media environment is “as vibrant as ever” to its accrescent portfolio of lies. He has refused to close the journalists’ association even as dozens of other civil-society groups and unions have chosen to wind up their operations. With Hong Kong’s best-known activists in jail, exile, or retreat from public life, Chan has been thrust evermore into an advocacy role. A journeyman journalist—his résumé lists jobs at nearly a dozen outlets, including TV stations, a tabloid, and even a paper controlled by the Chinese government where he served a short stint—he is emerging as an unlikely and unvarnished voice as many others are falling back. His risk taking may be because he is “naive” or “childish,” Chan told me, but he sees no reason to stop. “We have never requested more than press freedom; we are trying to protect the rights of journalists,” he said. “I don’t think we have committed any crime.”

Stand News was founded in 2014, the second iteration of a previous outlet that had closed when one of the founders came under threat. The staff was tiny, just over a dozen people, and the publication arrived at a time when Hong Kong’s media were in flux. The small staff and shoestring budget made competing with bigger, more established outlets difficult, but there were positives as well. Stand News and other online outlets were nimble and reacted quickly to breaking news. Freed from mainstream media’s burden of providing a comprehensive picture of the news, they could focus their reporting on a few select topics, Francis Lee, a professor at and director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told me. Their small size allowed them to experiment with new features, embracing ones that worked and ditching those that didn’t. Stand News’s chaotic graphics, many of which lampooned city leaders, were one such innovation, born out of a need for artwork to illustrate stories but a lack of photographers. “Stand News, in particular, took these advantages very well and therefore secured their presence and prominence in the online and social-media world,” Lee said.

Before joining Stand News in 2018, Chan spent nine months out of journalism doing odd jobs and collecting a small subsidy from the journalists’ association. He was filled with self doubt, and questioned whether he would ever land a spot in a newsroom again. For a self-described news addict, sitting on the sidelines was a unique form of misery. When he was first hired at Stand News, he struggled to find his place. But in September 2018, his editor suggested he cover the opening of a high-speed rail line linking Hong Kong to the mainland. Chan livestreamed the event from his mobile phone. About 300 people watched as he sped from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. The number wasn’t huge, but enough that editors thought livestreaming stories was worth pursuing. Chan’s loquacious manner made him a natural narrator. “I have to recognize that I like speaking,” Chan told me. A former colleague responded without hesitation when asked to describe Chan: “Very loud. Even if I put my headphones on, I could still hear his voice.”

Months later, when the 2019 protests erupted, Chan’s livestreaming skills were a perfect fit, as was staying behind the camera; he did not cut the figure of a traditional on-camera personality. His wardrobe consisted almost entirely of soccer jerseys. (His favorite club is the habitually disappointing Newcastle United. “I like the underdogs,” he told me. “I’m not an elite man.”) The demonstrations began during Hong Kong’s oppressively hot summer, and he would sometimes wear a sweatband around his head to keep perspiration from running into his eyes. The look matched his approach.

Chan told me he sometimes plays soccer highlights on his TV and does his own play-by-play commentary. He applied the same sportscasterlike style to his protest coverage, livestreaming as he described to viewers what he was seeing on the ground. Chan was a ubiquitous presence on the front line of demonstrations, occasionally arguing with police who tried to push back journalists or blot out their camera footage with strobe lights. The leaderless, decentralized nature of the demonstrations played to the strengths of Stand News, Lee told me. “In this scenario,” he said, “small-scale operations like Stand News and other online media actually had the distinctive advantage of being highly flexible and fluid in their own operation too.”

Lam Yin-pong, who worked as a reporter and then as an assignment editor for Stand News, credited Chan with popularizing the livestreaming format, one that was quickly emulated by other outlets and become a defining feature of the protests. Chan, Lam told me, possessed a “special energy” while reporting. “He keeps on talking, nonstop,” he said. Lam told me he was initially skeptical that constantly rolling, unscripted coverage would find a captive audience, but, “it turns out, people loved it.” People watched from their laptops at home, from their phones as they rode the subway, and from the sidewalk, looking up at jumbo screens hanging from buildings. Chan had his flaws. He could be careless and sometimes made mistakes while reporting, but his enthusiasm made up for his shortcomings. “We all love him,” another former Stand News journalist told me. “In this bad era, we need someone like him, with integrity, with courage, with honesty.” (Multiple former Stand News journalists interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of fear of legal repercussions.)

Omnipresent cameras were like a visual dragnet capturing everything, including officers hitting people or swearing, which helped sink the force’s reputation. “We can proudly state our position that we are against the police. We are not targeting the police as individuals, but rather the police as the only law enforcement in Hong Kong that can legally use force against the public,” a June 14 editorial on Stand News read. “The scrutiny and monitoring of police conduct and power is precisely the media’s greatest mission.” Just over a month later, Gwyneth Ho, another reporter at Stand News, livestreamed an attack by a mob of men on protesters and commuters at a train station. Ho herself was knocked to the floor while she reported, but kept recording. The moment helped vault her to fame. She left Stand News to run for a seat in the city’s Legislative Council, but was arrested and charged under the national-security law.

Stand News had to document the protest movement while also staying apart from it, which presented challenges. “The profession has established objectivity and neutrality as norms for journalists; but journalists must also defend freedom of expression and the right to monitor people in power in order to serve their function in society,” Luwei Rose Luqiu, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, wrote in Covering the 2019 Hong Kong Protests. “The conflict appears irresolvable, for journalists are told both to maintain distance from protesters and to advocate for the freedom of expression that the protests support.”

The Hong Kong government and officials in Beijing have repeatedly said that freedom of speech is not absolute and that the guise of press freedom cannot be used as cover for alleged “illegal activities,” though these activities were the type of routine journalism that was fine until 2020. John Lee, the city’s No. 2 official, said blame lay with “bad apples” in the media industry, not the government, for the decimation of Hong Kong’s press freedoms. Ronald Chiu, a former journalist and media executive who was tapped by the government in 2020 to help oversee the retooling of the city’s broadcast service into a less truthful and more propagandistic outlet, told me that journalists should see the national-security law as clarifying. Chiu described the regulation as a sort of stylebook entry for Hong Kong journalists. Except, rather than having to file an embarrassing correction and take a dressing-down from a perturbed editor, reporters who fall afoul of it could face life in prison. “In the past years, nobody actually pinpointed specifically some of the political redlines that we should be probably aware of much earlier,” Chiu told me, citing the topic of Hong Kong independence and referring to Taiwan as a country, as things that should be avoided.

The dominoes began to tumble last year, when Apple Daily, a colorful prodemocracy newspaper, was forced to shut down after it was raided by police, its editors arrested and its funds frozen. The paper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, is in jail for allegedly violating the national-security law and a host of lesser crimes. Some laid-off Apple Daily staff and others who saw their outlets succumbing to censorship and political pressures sought refuge at Stand News, but the respite proved to be temporary. On December 27, Stand News staff gathered at their office for a Christmas party. One former reporter told me that although friends had messaged her assuming it was really a farewell party being held under the guise of a holiday celebration; the mood was upbeat and cautiously optimistic. A backlog of projects needed to be finished before the new year, and she was delighted to receive a bonus despite the pandemic’s impact on the economy. Some 200 officers carried out the arrests and searched the office where reporters had celebrated and posed for a group photo two days earlier. Chan was sleeping when police arrived at his apartment. Naturally, he livestreamed the first few moments of the confrontation.

Citizen News, another independent outlet, ended its operations days later, citing Stand News’s closure as the reason. Numerous other smaller outlets folded in short order. Ming Pao, a centrist Chinese newspaper, last month began adding disclosures to its opinion pieces, hoping that they would provide a level of legal protection. The U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia said earlier this month some of its Cantonese-language programs would be suspended beginning in March. “There is a fear, which is running through the whole media sector in Hong Kong,” Michael Chugani, a prominent Hong Kong journalist and commentator who was usually known for pro-government views until 2019, told me. (Chugani left Hong Kong last year.)

At the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a wooden plaque with brass nameplates hanging just inside the entrance lists the club’s presidents dating back to 1949, as well as the publications they worked for, names like The Baltimore Sun, United Press International, and Le Monde. When the newest plaque is hung, for the first time, the president will not be a working journalist, but the head of the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school. At least three journalists working for North American outlets expressed interest in standing for the position during club elections last year, but were stopped from running by editors at their respective outlets, who were concerned that the role would attract unwanted political attention, according to a person at one of the outlets. The person asked not to be named for fear of professional retribution. A reporter for The Economist had her visa rejected late last year.

The United Nations and 21 countries condemned the closure of Stand News. The case against the outlet’s editors, most troublingly, is not based just on op-ed or opinion pieces, but reported stories as well. These include a deep dive on a “smart” prison system in the city, in addition to more banal, run-of-the-mill stories like one on an award being granted to a jailed lawyer. The editors’ trial will continue next month.

Chan has remained busy despite being unemployed. Journalists often call him looking for quotes about the media environment; he recently appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources. The Registry of Trade Unions is demanding information on the journalists’ association’s activities. The group’s future looks to be in grave jeopardy as the government continues to destroy any organization it perceives to be oppositional. Chan puts some blame on himself. He was too trusting, he told me. He trusted that Beijing would honor its commitments to Hong Kong and that freedom of the press would be protected, as it is supposed to be under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. In the end, he told me, “my workplace was forced to close; my bosses, who were professional journalists, were put in jail; and I’m afraid that I cannot be a journalist anymore. I feel very sad about it.”