July 1 marks the 21st anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to People’s Republic of China (PRC). The former British colony, which has embraced decades of freedom of speech, has been suffering from China’s growing media interferences: purchase of the daily newspapers South China Morning Post, Ming Pao Weekly, TVB and partial holding of i-cable; pressure from media owners; advertising budgets blackmail, etc. From ranking 18th at the creation of the RSF Press Freedom Index in 2002, the special administrative region is now 70th out of 180 countries and territories evaluated.
In its last report, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) notes that both the level of public trust in the press has reached an all time low and a new generation of online media outlets has developed with activist names such as Hong Kong Free Press, Citizen News, FactWire, Stand News, etc. After years of struggle, these independent media have recently obtained government recognition of their right to attend official events, a sign of their growing popularity.
"Hong Kongers are well aware that a free press is their best protection against the risk of abuse by their government and the Chinese authorities," said Cédric Alviani, director of Reporters Without Borders East Asia bureau. “We salute the courage of these media, who cultivate the values of journalism despite a difficult context and demonstrate their determination to resist censorship and propaganda."
Media born in turmoil
A first wave of independent media emerged when pro-democracy journalists were fired due to pressure from Beijing in 2004, less than a year after a half-a-million-people demonstration where nearly one in ten adults saw the national security law as Beijing’s effort to remotely control the media. The second wave of new media emerged in 2014 during the wake of a pro-democracy movement called the "Umbrella Movement" and its repression that left more than two thousand wounded including about thirty journalists.
The movement was in response to this wave of violence and the general pro-Beijing tone of the mainstream media. It was that local journalist, Tom Grundy, launched the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) news site in 2015. The following year an equivalent site in Chinese, Citizen News, was created by a number of veteran journalists. Two years prior to its creation, Kevin Lau, a former editor of Ming Pao was recovering from a stabbing attack in retaliation for his journalistic activities, when the project was born.
The added value of independent media resides in the ability to give a voice to the voiceless. And in just a few years from its creation, Citizen News earned a reputation for great editorial independence; last month Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu published an explosive interview with Liu Xia, widow of the Nobel Prize of peace Liu Xiaobo, who is held under house arrest in China without a charge for a crime or offense.
Back to the basics of journalism
To differentiate itself from traditional media and gain the trust of their readers, the new media in Hong Kong has the ambition to return to the fundamentals of journalism, exemplified in HKFP's mission to "report the facts without fear, favor or interference." The quest for transparency goes through adopting a code of ethics and hiring an external auditor to publish a detailed account report.
The preservation of editorial independence generally involves legally becoming an association, which makes a future hostile takeover impossible and reduces the risk of pressure. House News, which had to close in 2014 following government harassment and anonymous threats against its founder and his family, reopened six months later under the name of Stand News, as a nonprofit run by a group of journalists.
A non-profit model allows independent media to free itself from the constraints of a for-profit organization and the need to satisfy shareholder compensation, so it can devote all of its revenues to the production of information and maintenance for a modest office. In its 2016 report, HKFP indicated that 86% of its budget is allocated to staff costs, mainly journalists.
As major advertisers prefer to keep a low profile, independent media have based their business model on reader's donations and monthly subscriptions. Inmedia, a current website launched in 2004, has set an example by refusing advertisements and basing its financial model on purely the generosity of its readers. Ten years later, HKFP and FactWire were inspired by this model; their fundraising was facilitated by the emergence of crowdfunding platforms like FringeBacker, a site dedicated to charitable projects, artistic and publishing works in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Free Press has managed to raise 600,000 Hong Kong dollars (64,000 euros) to finance its start-up in 2015. Followed by other ambitious fundraisers the following year, FactWire, Citizen News and Inmedia have also managed to reap significant sums of 3 to 5 million Hong Kong dollars each (300 to 500,000 euros) as a result of crowdfunding sites. The financial viability seems to reside in having a modest team size. An office of a dozen people is already a significant cost for a young media given the high cost of living in the city.
The 90-employee website Initium Media, which bases its free model on advertising revenue, nearly encountered bankruptcy in April 2017. As a result, it had to reduce its workforce by two-thirds and switch to subscription plans to ensure a balanced budget. FactWire, the site known for its quality journalism investigations, has also faced financial problems that question its survival to the end of the year.
A future still uncertain
If the new media have found their audience, their future is far from assured. With the development of the online information market, they run the risk of being drowned in a mass of pro-Beijing media outlets. The site HK01, launched at the wave of creation of citizen media in 2016 but owned by the China-linked investment company Nan Hai Corp, is criticized for the complacency of some of its articles to local authorities and the Beijing regime.
Although the violence against journalists has declined in recent years, the independent media are still vulnerable and are often the subject of phone calls and anonymous threats. Following an insistent threat in July 2016, Factwire moved from its premises. Last year during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit, a reporter from Inmedia was attacked by a stranger during a pro-democracy demonstration. HKFP has also received anonymous threatening letters that became in increasingly aggressive, and eventually had to be handled by the police.
These independent media, in the end, are at the mercy of an expeditious intervention by Beijing, which can at any time put an end to their activities. In 2015, by kidnapping five collaborators of an independent publishing house, the Chinese authorities had shown that they were not afraid to strike outside their jurisdiction. One of the publishers, Gui Minhai, is still detained in China.