Western Newsrooms weigh alternatives to Hong Kong as Beijing tightens Grip

The New York Times will move staff to Seoul, and The Journal and others could consider similar changes

By guest author Dan Strumpf from Wall Street Journal

All captions courtesy by Wall Street Journal

For decades, Hong Kong’s press freedoms have made it a hub for Western media organizations covering Asia. Beijing’s new national-security law is causing many newsrooms to rethink the city’s status as a haven for journalists.

On Tuesday, July14, 2020, the New York Times said that it was relocating one-third of its Hong Kong staff to Seoul, making it the first major Western news outlet to move a significant share of its staff in response to the darkening environment for media.

Other global news organizations are considering similar moves, with some drawing up contingency plans to relocate elsewhere in the region should it become necessary, according to people familiar with the matter. Working visas for some foreign journalists, previously routinely issued, have become snarled in recent months too, creating operational difficulties for some.

The Times, in an article about the move, cited the strict new law creating uncertainty about the newspaper’s operations, and noted difficulties obtaining visas for some Hong Kong-based staffers, including one reporter whose application wasn’t renewed.

A representative for China’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Beijing’s stance toward the Western press has hardened in recent months, with officials blaming foreign media for helping fan antigovernment protests that shook Hong Kong last year. The national-security law, passed by Beijing just two weeks ago, is unusual in that it also explicitly calls for tighter controls on foreign media.

For the first time, it requires China’s foreign ministry and a new national-security enforcement office maintained by Beijing to take measures to manage foreign media in Hong Kong. The city is home to a press corps numbering some 8,000, according to research company Telum Media, many of them working for trade and financial publications.

“The Chinese are signaling this is an area they will not tolerate any separate policies from Hong Kong that could be seen as threatening China’s interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The law “just signals to me a very negative future for freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”

The Times said it would relocate its digital news team to Seoul over the next year. The relocation also includes senior editors based in Hong Kong whose visas have lapsed and who are no longer able to work in the city, according to people familiar with the matter.

A Times spokeswoman said the paper has around 80 staff currently in the city and will remain committed to covering Hong Kong and China and maintain a large presence in the city.

“We plan to retain our business and print hub in Hong Kong while, over time, moving our digital editing hub to Seoul, giving us flexibility while keeping all of our resources easily accessible and in the region,” she said.

Other news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, have been weighing the possibility of relocating staff to other bureaus if necessary following the new law, according to people familiar with the matter.

A spokesman for Dow Jones, which owns the Journal, said the company is assessing the situation in Hong Kong but remains committed to telling stories about the region.

A spokeswoman for the Post said it is assessing the impact of the security law but doesn’t intend to scale back its on-the-ground operations in Hong Kong. The Post had been previously exploring plans to expand its two-person presence in Hong Kong into a larger base for Asia operations, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A spokeswoman at CNN, which operates a large regional hub out of Hong Kong, said it had no current plans to relocate. “If our ability to operate there becomes compromised we will of course review that,” she said.

The Financial Times, which also has Hong Kong as its regional hub, said the newspaper is “monitoring the situation closely but have no immediate plans to move staff out.”

Spokespeople for other outlets with Hong Kong operations, including Reuters and Bloomberg, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Last week, the Hong Kong government released a series of rules giving police broad new powers to enforce the security law, including the power to conduct searches without a warrant and remove content from digital platforms.

The national-security law calls for tighter controls broadly on media in Hong Kong. For foreign journalists, of particular worry is Article 54, which grants Beijing’s new Hong Kong-based enforcement agency the power to “take necessary measures to strengthen the management of and services to” foreign news outlets and other international organizations.

Neither the Hong Kong or Beijing governments has spelled out what such new measures might look like. Officials have said that the city’s freedoms will continue to be guaranteed.

The tougher line on foreign journalists based in Hong Kong comes amid a deteriorating climate for correspondents in mainland China. In February, mainland authorities revoked the press credentials of three Journal reporters in Beijing following the publication of a column in the newspaper’s editorial pages whose headline provoked public anger.

That was followed the next month by the expulsion of American journalists working for the Journal, the Times and the Post. The expulsions were tit-for-tat measures after the Trump administration imposed personnel caps on four Chinese state-run outlets in the U.S.

The expelled journalists were barred by China’s foreign ministry from relocating to work in Hong Kong, as some previously expelled reporters have.

“We are concerned about the potential for visas to be affected by the national-security law and would like answers from the government,” Jodi Schneider, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, said Wednesday.

The club has called on the city’s top local official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to clarify the implications of the new law.

“If the Foreign Correspondents’ Club or all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100% guarantee that they will not commit any offenses under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same,” Mrs. Lam responded at a press briefing last week.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong government declined to comment on the Times decision to relocate staff, but noted that Hong Kong law guarantees freedom of the press. “Hong Kong remains a regional media hub,” the spokeswoman said.