Covering civil unrest: Hong Kong journalism students learn by doing

Photo Credit: Katherine Cheng

Before protests broke out in June 2019, Crystal Yip, the president of university-affiliated City Broadcasting Channel (CBC), never imagined herself dodging tear gas and rubber bullets with a camera in her hand in this age of uncertainty. Over the past year, Hong Kong’s campus media outlets have taken a twist, shifting focus from student life to the unrest on city streets.

Over the summer of 2019, a controversial extradition bill prompted citywide demonstrations in Hong Kong due to fear of China interfering with the city’s judicial independence. Peaceful marches soon escalated into violent clashes between protesters and police.

“At the beginning of the movement, only mainstream press and a few independent media outlets were covering the protests,” said Yip. “A lot of us felt the obligation to be on the frontlines because we believed that we would make a difference by capturing the truth as student reporters.”

Despite the withdrawal of the bill in September 2019, protests continued into 2020 as the government fails to meet protesters’ demands. The enactment of the national security law in July further dismantled Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Police crackdowns on protests often end in mass arrests. At CBC, an independent student media outlet at the City University of Hong Kong, Yip often receives messages from family members of arrested protesters. “They ask if any of our reporters happened to capture footage of the arrestee, so lawyers can use our videos as evidence to prove their innocence,” said Yip. Moments like these remind her of the importance of documenting the truth as a journalist amidst political turmoil.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association 2020 Press Freedom Report notes that student media outlets often provide exclusive footage to the public, and their coverage makes headlines and is relied upon by mainstream media. 

Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, said student media should be recognized for holding the powerful accountable.  “They are able to cover a lot of ground when multiple conflicts are taking place across the city because there are so many of them,” said Lui. “As a result, campus media has produced many exclusives that mainstream media often overlooked.”

The HKJA 2020 Press Freedom Report also stated that student journalists are more vulnerable, as they “were questioned and detained by police more often than others.”

In February, a CBC reporter was detained by the police while covering the vigil for Chow Tsz-lok, a university student who fell to his death during a clearance operation. During his detention, the reporter was verbally abused. Police officers called him “faggot” and threatened to rape him, according to a statement released by CBC. “They insulted him because he is a male with long hair,” said Yip, adding that this was the second time a student reporter from City Broadcasting Channel was arrested.

At a July 21 demonstration marking the one-year anniversary of the Yuen Long mob attack, police asked reporters for credentials and those who failed to provide press ID were fined, including some student reporters. Thirteen campus media outlets released a joint statement condemning the fining of reporters as Hong Kong journalists are not required to have press credentials to cover public events. 

Keith Richburg, the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, said the police’s attempt to limit access to journalists, whether freelancers, those with accreditation to a specific news agency, or student reporters, is a danger for a free society and a slide into authoritarianism. 

“The police and government have no right to decide who is a ‘real’ or ‘fake’ journalist, just as I cannot decide who is a ‘real’ or ‘fake’ policeman,” he said. 

Richburg is also concerned that the new national security law will discourage young reporters from covering “sensitive stories,” or even from pursuing careers in journalism. His own experience as a student reporter at The University of Michigan helped shape his career, he said, because he was able to watch and learn from professionals on the scene.

Maintaining objectivity, being taken seriously

Student reporters are often criticized for their immaturity and inability to uphold the standards of professional journalists.

Richburg said many student journalists now think “objectivity” is an outdated notion because young people have grown up in the milieu of social media, which is driven by opinion, loud voices, snark, and commentary. 

“They want to be out there exposing what they consider ‘the truth,’ whether it’s reporting on Black Lives Matter, climate change, or the Hong Kong protests.” he said. “But that’s not performing journalism, that’s advocacy.” Young reporters should instead build up their skills – ferreting out fact from fiction, interviewing sources, and arriving at fact-based conclusions based on evidence before rushing into opinion writing. 

Lui, the journalism lecturer, asks his students to distinguish themselves from protesters to maintain objectivity, for example, by refraining from chanting slogans or singing protest songs when covering demonstrations.

Yip, of student-run CBC, has sometimes struggled to be impartial. She recalled covering the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) siege in November 2019 when riot police stormed the campus occupied by protesters and turned the institution into a battlefield. 

“At one point I was extremely tired after being attacked by a water cannon,” she said. “I was afraid that I couldn’t get out of the campus, which was locked down.” 

The next morning, a protester asked Yip if she knew any way out. Helpless, she said no, and turned to the police where she identified herself as a reporter and handed over her information so she could go home. “I couldn’t stop thinking about those who were still trapped inside,” she said. “That whole week was an indescribably conflicted experience. Although I was no longer in PolyU, I was mentally stuck inside along with the protesters.”

Lui said that it is normal when young journalists find it difficult to withdraw themselves from traumatic events, or consider their work as part of the fight for freedom.

“Consider such experience as part of one’s learning process to become a professional journalist,” he said. In such situations Lui recommends that students take a step back and examine their reporting from a different perspective. “You need to provide your readers fair and factual reporting. You are proving yourself right with facts, even if they disagree with you.”

He said although student reporters are not flawless, they are entitled to freedom of the press. “We need to think about what our society would look like without them. Student journalists cover a lot of police brutality, even then, police are still not being held accountable.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong ranked 80th in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 73 in 2019. The report stated that the drastic decline in press freedom is a result of violence against journalists.  

“It is our social system that unjustly gives young reporters this kind of struggle,” said Lui. 

His biggest concern is that authorities get to select who monitors those in power and who doesn’t by denying the legitimacy of student journalists. “We need journalists to fix flaws in our society, or else there will be more corruption as there are no watchdogs to keep an eye on the government.”