May 2021

Message from Keith

May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, and this year, the journalistic freedom landscape looks particularly bleak, especially here in Asia.

The last year depressingly has seen as many as 66 journalists killed, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Reporters Without Borders puts the number somewhat lower, at 50, depending on definitions. In all the surveys, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines led the list in Asia.

Last year also saw a distressing number of attacks against journalists, including by police and security forces. Journalists in the United States covering the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as reporters in Myanmar and Thailand covering the pro-democracy demonstrations, have all been targeted.

There has also been a marked increase in online harassment directed against journalists, and particularly against women reporters who have been subjected to abuse and threats of sexual assault, all for their reporting.

We have also seen a weaponisation of the legal system to harass and threaten journalists, as authoritarian governments try to stifle tough, independent reporting. Laws against blasphemy in Indonesia and against insulting the king, known as lèse majesté in Thailand, have been used to intimidate journalists trying to do their job. Defamation and libel suits have become costly cudgels for the powerful to try to beat journalists and independent news sites into submission.

There has also been a proliferation of so-called “fake news” laws, ostensibly aimed at reining in disinformation—including surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic—but in reality used as a tool to shut down truthful, accurate reporting that those in power wish to suppress.

Hong Kong, sadly, has been no exception. A local reporter was criminally charged and convicted for using a common journalistic tool—a vehicle public records search—to undercover the truth behind a triad attack at the Yuen Long MTR station, and the delayed police response, in July 2019. The government later announced plans to restrict reporters’ access to public data like identity card numbers and residential addresses in the companies registry, which will severely impede investigative journalism.

And now the Hong Kong government appears set on introducing some kind of new “fake news” law that will set the police and bureaucrats as the arbiters of what is real and what is fake. No doubt, any reporting that contradicts the government’s official line or that offers a critical, independent perspective may be deemed “fake news” and a “smear”, and thus subject to prosecution.

According to Reporters Without Borders’s ranking of 180 countries and regions for press freedom, only South Korea and Taiwan place among the top 50. Most ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Singapore rank nearer the bottom, with Laos, Vietnam and China bringing up the ignominious rear, just ahead of North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan.

Hong Kong ranks at number 80, a seemingly too generous spot, but a far cry from its recent past as a city with perhaps the freest press in Asia. Next year is likely to see Hong Kong tumble again, as officials seems intent on turning it from one of the region’s most press-friendly places to one of the most hostile. Or in other words, turning Hong Kong into every other mainland city.

What can journalists do? Keep pushing. Keep publishing truthful, fact-based journalism. When legitimate mistakes are made, as happens, correct them quickly and fully to avoid the “fake news” finger-pointing. Know the legal limits, but keep holding power to account, and do not succumb to the temptation to self-censor or self-edit. And do not be distracted by the noise, including from the abusive online trolls and anonymous harassers.

Press freedom remains integral to society. And despite the obstacles, it’s still a right worth fighting for.

Keith B. Richburg
Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre


HKU Journalism is now a partner of Covering Climate Now, a global group of more than 460 news and media partners producing informed and urgent climate stories. ​Asia will be most affected by climate change and HKU Journalism, led by lecturer Marianne Bray, who teaches the climate change section of our "Health and Climate Reporting" course, has set up a Twitter account where we will share student coverage and commentary on climate stories across Asia.

Alumni & Student News

2009 Master of Journalism alumnus Swe Win has been named the 2021 recipient of the Shorenstein Journalism Award. Swe Win is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now, and has received numerous honours for his work investigating underreported issues in Myanmar. Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center presents the annual award to "a journalist who has contributed significantly to a greater understanding of Asia through outstanding reporting on critical issues affecting the region". Since being shot and injured in November 2019, Swe Win has been in exile and managing the Myanmar Now newsroom that is now in hiding as the military junta continues to persecute journalists in the country.

Faculty & Staff News

Dr. Masato Kajimoto spoke at a three-day UNESCO webinar hosted by the Republic of Serbia on "Media and Information Literate Citizens: Think Critically, Click Wisely!" The event launched a new resource for educators and learners on media and information literacy developed in response to the disinfodemic. Masato took part in the "Policies and Practices: Futures of Media and Information Literacy" session on 27 April.

HKU's Centre of Development and Resources for Students hosted a screening of Ruby Yang's latest film, My Voice, My Life Revisited, on 13 April. Afterwards, Ruby joined Dr. Linda Yeung, Director of Counselling and Person Enrichment at CEDARS, for a discussion to share her exploration of young people, their aspirations and challenges.

HKU Journalism in the news
(15 March) The Economist Intelligence Unit: Flattening the Multimodal Learning Curve: A Faculty Playbook, by Marianne Bray
(8 April) The Correspondent: How ‘fake news’ legislation stifles critical reporting, by Eric Wishart
(10 April) AFP Fact Check: Fabricated photo misleads on celebrity support for Xinjiang cotton (Annie Lab)
(15 April) The Globe and Mail: Beijing accuses journalists of ‘anti-China propaganda’ as it tries to raise alarm over foreign ‘hostile forces’ (King-wa Fu)
(16 April) The New York Times: Hong Kong court sentences Jimmy Lai and other pro-democracy leaders to prison(Sharron Fast)
(17 April) Foresight: 香港で「逃げ恥」新春SPが急遽放映中止に――揺れる「香港メディア」 (In Japanese), by Masato Kajimoto
(23 April) The New York Times: Guilty verdict for Hong Kong journalist as media faces ‘frontal assault’ (Keith B. Richburg)
(24 April) South China Morning Post: Who defines ‘fake news’ in Hong Kong, and is a law needed? Calls for legislation spark fears of curbs on media, critics (Masato Kajimoto)
(30 April) Business Insider: Why Is Housing In Hong Kong So Expensive?, co-produced by Vanesse Chan (BJ 2021)
Coming Up

Thomas Abraham will be speaking on 5 May at a discussion forum hosted by the International Centre Goa along with Dr. Chinmay Tumbe and moderator Dr. Pushkar. The event, "Pandemics: Past, present, future", will discuss "how nations and their peoples have coped with pandemics in the past and in the present, how pandemics end, the kind of devastation they leave behind, and what the post-pandemic era looks like or will look like, for nation-states as well as their peoples." More info and registration here.

Follow us on Twitter
Visit our Facebook page