Monthly newsletter: May 2019

Message from Keith

Is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a hero or a heel? Is Assange, currently in a British jail, a journalist who should be supported as a symbol of press freedom? Or is he a computer hacker who should be extradited to the United States and forced to stand trial for crimes, including theft of private information?

Assange elicits strong emotions on both sides of those questions, and I must confess, I am of two minds about him and WikiLeaks. The longtime journalist in me applauds some of what WikiLeaks has done, for example its disclosure of footage of a 2007 U.S. airstrike on Baghdad that killed Iraqi civilians and two Iraqi journalists with the Reuters news agency. WikiLeaks’ exposures over the years have provided countless news stories to mainstream media outlets.

At the same time, as a private citizen, I am troubled by an organization that sees no problem in publishing stolen, private emails. Social media platforms such as Facebook have been under fire lately over accusations of failing to properly protect users’ private information, yet many journalists seem to celebrate when WikiLeaks exposes the private emails and cables of government officials, diplomats, politicians, and business people.

Assange and his supporters are now wrapping themselves in the U.S. First Amendment, insisting that WikiLeaks is a media outlet and Assange is a publisher who should be guaranteed press freedom protections. But his detractors say Assange and his WikiLeaks crew are information anarchists, like digital terrorists of the Internet age who believe that all information should be public, regardless of the consequences.

I admit that I was once a fan of WikiLeaks, when I was a Washington Post correspondent and relied on some of their exposures, including leaked diplomatic cables, for my own stories. But my view of the organization soured when WikiLeaks in 2016 began publishing stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, with the clear effect of interfering in the U.S. election, hurting Clinton’s campaign and helping elect Donald Trump as president.

Under criticism for publishing the Clinton emails, Assange defended himself in a November 2016 statement on the site, saying, “The right to receive and impart true information is the guiding principle of WikiLeaks,” and that with the Clinton email disclosures, “the real victor is the U.S. public which is better informed as a result of our work.” He called this “an open model of journalism that gatekeepers are uncomfortable with”.

But as to why WikiLeaks was only targeting Clinton in the midst of a closely contested election, Assange came up with this reasoning:  “At the same time, we cannot publish what we do not have,” he wrote. “To date, we have not received information on Donald Trump's campaign…”

For me, therein lies the key problem with Assange and WikiLeaks. Those “gatekeepers” he maligns—meaning the traditional, mainstream media—serve an important purpose. For one, those gatekeepers strive for balance and fairness, particularly during heated election cycles. Also, the gatekeepers generally do not, as Assange does, publish everything they have and let the public sift through the data dump. Journalists vet the information. They often withhold information deemed sensitive that might unnecessarily endanger or malign innocent people or put lives at risk.

In other words, real journalists do not just publish all the information they come across, completely unfettered. They use that information to do real reporting, they make calls, they knock on doors, they talk to people, they look for context and background, and they write stories.

Data dumps serve a purpose, particularly to expose corruption, as with the Panama Papers, or when shedding light on the hidden corners that governments would rather keep secret for fear of embarrassment. But by my definition, WikiLeaks is no news organization. And Julian Assange is not a journalist.

Keith Richburg
Director of the JMSC


Over 300 people packed Rayson Huang Theatre on 15 April to learn about attempts by the Chinese government to erase the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown from history and how the events of that day are reflected in collective memory, on social media, and in the reporting of journalists who cover China today.

The event, Tiananmen 30 years on: Trying to Remember, Forced to Forget, was co-organized by JMSC and PEN Hong Kong to mark the 30th anniversary of the government crackdown of the student-led demonstrations in Beijing.

Dr. Edmund Cheng of Hong Kong Baptist University, JMSC Associate Professor Dr. King-wa Fu and JMSC writer-in-residence Louisa Lim presented their research findings. They were then joined by Dr. Samson Yuen of Lingnan

University, co-author with Dr. Cheng, in a panel discussion moderated by Keith Richburg. The event was live-streamed on our YouTube channel and by Hong Kong Free Press on Facebook. The video is available here.

Coinciding with the April 15th event, our Weiboscope team, led by Dr. King-wa Fu, released 1,256 Weibo posts related to the Tiananmen Square crackdown that were censored between 1-4 June each year between 2012 and 2018. The #64censoredpics archive can also be found on Instagram and Pinterest. Details here.

Veteran journalist Philip Bowring wrapped up the last of our talks for this academic year. He and moderator Keith Richburg were at the HKU Main Library on 16 April to talk about his new book, Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago. The video of the talk is available on our YouTube channel.

JMSC has joined First Draft's "CrossCheck Australia" coalition of media and academic partners. First Draft opened its Australia Bureau recently to tackle misinformation in the lead up to the Australian elections. It is headed by our former colleague Anne Kruger, who set up the JMSC Cyber News Verification Lab. Ann Choy will act as research coordinator for our first project where students will be investigating news stories and fact-checking online content related to the upcoming Australian elections. Their work will contribute to reports published on the CrossCheck platform.

Student & Alumni News

Photographs by students in our photojournalism courses have again been selected for the annual student exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents' Club. Six photographs were chosen from submissions made by our JMSC Honorary Lecturer Kees Metselaar. The exhibition, titled “Young Lenses: Hong Kong Stories”, will be on show at the Main Bar from 8-15 May.

The latest episode of Strapline, "Fact, Opinion, or B.S.?", features fourth-year Bachelor of Journalism student Kelly Chiu as co-host along with Assistant Lecturer AJ Libunao. The video series is part of our ongoing news literacy initiative to develop teaching and learning materials for the general public in Asia.

Faculty & Staff News

Dr. King-wa Fu and JMSC writer-in-residence Louisa Lim were featured in Ming Pao on 14 April ahead of the April 15th event on campus.

The front page story reported on the research findings of King-wa's Weiboscope project about censorship of Tiananmen-related Weibo posts. A profile of Louisa and her work about suppression of memory of the 1989 student demonstrations was the cover story in the Sunday supplement.

Our Adjunct Professor Ross Settles spoke at this year's International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, on 5 April. He joined a panel of speakers, including GIJN's David Kaplan, for a discussion about best practices for running sustainable investigative newsrooms. Watch here.

Ross also spoke at Splice Beta along with our alumnus Tom Grundy, co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. The event, which took place in Chiangmai from 1-3 May, is the first media start-up festival in Asia, bringing together start-ups, entrepreneurs, and media game changers. 

Dr. Masato Kajimoto, who heads our ongoing news literacy initiative, spoke at the "Maintaining Credibility and Trust in Journalism" workshop. The event, which was held in Bangkok in March, was co-organized by Thailand's Government Public RelationsUNESCO Thailand and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Masato was also interviewed by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media about the importance of news literacy and fact-checking and by Global Ground for their series on disinformation in Asia.
JMSC in the news
9 April – Reuters: Hong Kong pro-democracy 'Occupy' activists defiant after guilty verdicts, co-written by Jessie Pang (MJ 2019)

10 April – Global Voices: Censored on WeChat: How a fatal bus accident in Chongqing symbolized China's ‘left turn’, by WeChatscope project team

10 April – Global Voices: Censored on WeChat: Revelations of toxic ingredients in Hongmao medicinal liquor, by WeChatscope project team

17 April – Global Voices: China's Censored Histories: Commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, co-written by WeChatscope project team

17 April – AFP Fact Check: No, this is not a real tweet by Indian journalist Sweta Singh in support of Prime Minister Modi, by Supriya Batra (MJ 2019)
23 April – The Associated Press: Leaders of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests sentenced, co-written by Veta Chan (MJ 2019)
25 April – Thomson Reuters Foundation: Shunning bad luck, Hong Kong buys into 'pre-loved' fashion, by Marianne Bray
2 May – SupChina: Case of Ethiopian engineer detained in China is raised by PM Abiy Ahmed in meeting with Xi, by Fatima Qureshi (MJ 2019)
Coming up
We will be screening six short documentaries produced by this year's Master of Journalism students in Nancy Tong and Ruby Yang's Documentary Video Production class. The screening will be held from 3-5pm on Friday, 10 May, at CYPP3, Chong Yuet Ming Physics Building. Students will be on hand to present their work and discuss the production process.
JMSC is again hosting AAJA-Asia's annual media conference, N3Con, which will be held from 30 May to 2 June at HKU. This year's theme is "Covering Asia's New Order". JMSC will also be co-organizing the Journalism and Media Job Fair on 31 May. Details here.