Hong Kong’s journalism schools struggle to react to national security law

“We don’t know where the red lines are”

Academic freedom has come under attack since the enactment of the national security law in July 2020. Beijing is using dismissals and arrests to curtail students’ and professors’ rights, Timothy McLaughlin wrote in The Atlantic in June, in an article entitled “How Academic Freedom Ends.” 

Per the article: “Five university heads last year signed a letter endorsing the national-security law, throwing their support behind the legislation before it was even made public. This move highlighted one of the more troubling aspects of the threats on campus, and within academia more broadly: The marching orders to suppress freedoms are being dutifully carried out not by police or the authorities, but by fellow colleagues, and even students. One postgraduate student at HKU has reported at least two faculty members to the tip line, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.”

So how are Hong Kong’s esteemed journalism schools adapting to this new reality? The heads of three of the city’s top journalism schools addressed the issue during a June 21 panel discussion on post-NSL media freedom, hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University.

Link: https://www.hkbu.online/mediafreedom/

Keith Richburg, Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

“We’re still grappling with how to proceed. My message to the students and my colleagues is just full steam ahead, because we don’t know where the red lines are. So we don’t intend to paint the red lines for them; we’re just going to go ahead and let them tell us. 

“At the moment, I think we’re fine, because if you look at the four categories of crimes under national security: terrorism – we don’t have any terrorists in our program; and secession, we don’t advocate anything, we just teach people how to do journalism; subversion of state power, we’re not trying to subvert anything, unless you consider doing critical journalism as trying to subvert state power; collusion with foreign forces – well, I am foreign, so I don’t know what that means [laughs]. 

“The only thing I’ve seen on that is we can’t invite consuls general to come and talk to our students, as before, because I think they have to get permission from the foreign ministry to go there.”

Richburg added that the only area the university has had to make some “small” changes is in the media law classes. “Our media law instructor has had to add in a couple of sessions on national security law, because we teach journalists anywhere in the world you have to obey the law. In Germany you can’t talk about Nazism, in Thailand you can’t criticize the King, in Malaysia or Indonesia you can’t blasphemize the prophet, so every country has its red lines. The difference is in China we don’t know where the red lines are.”

Francis Lee, director of the Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication

Francis Lee, director of CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication, said his overall message to journalism students in the wake of the national security law is twofold: “On the one hand, I urge them not to self-censor. We are running a journalism education school, so the last thing we want is for you guys to have self-censorship.

“But I also tell them on the other hand, the law exists, and so we cannot pretend that it does not exist. So the law is there… what it means in practice is that you should just feel free to propose whatever you want to do, but we cannot rule out the possibility that the teachers… might need to discuss with the students on exactly how to approach certain topics.

“It’s just like what Keith said, we’re not doing political theory, we are not doing political philosophy; that helps, we don’t need to debate normatively whether this political system is better than that political system. We’re just doing journalism. Basically, we’re training people to just report on what happens in the world. Even for teachers, I guess our message to the teachers is that we’re just doing journalism education, and we should just keep doing what we’re doing.”

C. K. Lau – Dept. of Journalism head, Hong Kong Baptist University

“After the national security law was introduced, I hosted a meeting with all the practicum instructors, the faculty members who are responsible for supervising the students, basically saying, okay, the law is there. You may not like it, but the law is there. The last thing you want to do is drag the student through a legal process. So we say, we don’t want to censor ourselves, but if the students do want to touch on a sensitive topic, instructors do have a responsibility to go through the stories, discuss them thoroughly with students, so that they know what they’re doing. I think that’s the attitude that we have as educators.”