Three months ago Ronson Chan was working as deputy assignment editor at Stand News, one of Hong Kong’s independent and pro-democracy news sites. His job involved assigning news stories to the team of reporters, helping set the editorial agenda and running the outlet’s social media posts.
As head of the Hong Kong Journalism Association he had seen up close the fallout from the Beijing media crackdown – closures, arrests, the offshoring of international bureaus.
Then the knock on his door came and his own career was dramatically paused. On the same day, 29 December, his colleagues – including the paper’s editor-in-chief and some board members – were arrested in an early morning national security operation which also saw hundreds of officers raid the newsroom.
Today Chan works as a delivery driver and is among scores of reporters and editors in Hong Kong whose lives are in limbo. To make ends meet he spent the lunar new year driving his car around Hong Kong, making deliveries for a friend’s online retail business.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, about 20 journalists and press defenders have been arrested or detained by law enforcement so far under Hong Kong’s media crackdown, overseen by Beijing and carried out by a police force empowered with new laws and resources. The popular pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was forced to close months before Stand News. Independent outlet Citizen News shut its doors just days after. Foreign bureaus have moved staff overseas and correspondents have been denied visas.
Alongside Chan, an estimated 1,000 people have lost their jobs, plus several hundred more in Apple Daily’s Taiwan sister-paper. Many Hong Kong journalists couldn’t find their way back to the industry, and now drive taxis or sell food, Vice reported.
If Chan doesn’t find a new journalism job soon he’ll be forced to give up his role as the head of the journalism association.
“I want to continue on my career path as a journalist, but it really depends on what are the opportunities that lie ahead,” he says.
‘I was shaking beyond control’
The knock on the door on 29 December wasn’t unexpected, Chan said, but it did come faster than he thought.
“I woke up to the doorbell and I doubted whether what was happening was real,” he said. “There was barely a sense of anxiety or fear, but I was shaking beyond control as the officers held a search warrant.”
The national security department officers were there to search his apartment and take him in for questioning, part of an investigation into Stand News and alleged conspiring to publish seditious content. At the same time, six others were being arrested across the city, including chief editor Patrick Lam, former chief editor Chung Pui-Kuen and former board member Christine Fang, and former board members Denise Ho, Margaret Ng, and Tat-chi Chow.
Later that day, after being questioned without charge, he went straight to the newsroom where a decision had already been made: it was time to close the paper.
“The editor-in-chief [Patrick Lam] was not there because he had been arrested,” Chan says. “They decided to cease operation as soon as possible … and I vowed my support of their decision.”
“There is not much in detail I can share, I am afraid, but we have expected that this would happen one day, so we put things in the pipeline, [ready] for the worst to come.”
The national security officers searched Chan’s home, seized his electronics and took him away for questioning. He livestreamed the raid on Facebook for as long as he could until an officer told him to stop, and the recording now joins a large catalogue of early-morning door knocks filmed by journalists, politicians and activists being arrested in the last two years.
In the weeks since the raid, Chan has had to defend the journalist’s union, which he still leads, against government inquiries into its activities and demands for financial records. He continues to speak out about press freedom and in his spare time he visits his friends in prison.
“At first, we grieved that we were in that kind of situation. But after a month of living behind bars, they have grown stronger and tougher and more courageous. We have been getting along, just chatting about our daily life and so on.”
An uncertain future
Stand News was founded in 2014 as an online independent and crowdfunded outlet, mostly covering Hong Kong’s political and social news, and grew to be seen as one of the city’s most credible sources, according to academic surveys. In 2019 its reporters were on the frontline of the pro-democracy protests – including Gwyneth Ho, who kept filming as she was attacked and beaten by assailants at Yuen Long. In recent months it has been targeted by the city’s powerful. Security chief Chris Tang labeled it a biased outlet and accused it of “smearing and demonising” government programmes.
This year Stand News was shortlisted for a Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom award. Asked how he sees the outlet’s ethos, Chan pulls out his phone and says he has a Facebook post with an old mission statement he wants to read out. But then he starts scowling at the screen, exasperated as he realises that his Facebook account has been hacked – a frequent occurrence lately.
The crackdown on the press has left journalists in fear of being questioned, arrested or charged. The vagueness in the national security law means no one knows where the red lines are, and while the law is not retroactive there is a lack of clarity about how to treat previously published stories which are still online, and how a journalist’s earlier – and at the time lawful – actions can be considered as signalling intent.
Chan doesn’t know if he faces arrest in the future. He supports those still working as journalists in Hong Kong but warns they are susceptible to intimidation or punitive actions over their reporting, without clear parameters of what is OK.
“There is no one forcing or telling you what to write and what not to write, but there will be consequences if you do something that crosses the line.”
Six months before the raid Chan had told an interviewer that nobody could stop him from pursuing any kind of news story, “but you don’t know how long this freedom can be exercised”.
Additional reporting by Daniel Ceng Shou Yi