FCC HK president Keith Richburg on suspending the Human Rights Press Awards

The controversial decision by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong to suspend its annual Human Rights Press Awards just days before announcing the 2022 winners sparked outcry among journalists worldwide, and among FCC members, with several resigning from the awards committee.

FCCHK president Keith Richburg was asked about the incident during a panel at the club on May 22, 2022, and his detailed response is excerpted below, edited slightly.

View the discussion on the FCC’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLSkLsAr2EQ

Moderator: There has been a lot of criticism of the FCC’s decision to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards, and it’s raised questions about what the role of the club should be. What do you think this means for the FCC going forward?

Keith Richburg:

As I said about journalists operating here, we have to be a bit more clever, we have to navigate these kinds of complex issues. That was an unfortunate decision that we had to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards. Just a bit of background on that, and thanks for asking, as I wanted to clarify that.

You know, the last year, Amnesty International, who was our founding partner, decided they were going to leave Hong Kong, and so therefore they couldn’t be our partner anymore. At the same time, CUHK [Chinese University of Hong Kong], which was the administrator of the awards, decided it was too sensitive and they could no longer be the administrator. So Ronson [head of HK Journalists Association] and I spoke, I said what do you want to do here? Because these guys [HKJA] were under a lot more pressure [than] we were at the time, and they said maybe you better leave us out of it now, maybe just keep us as a founding partner. So it was FCC. The FCC board had a decision to make – should we try to continue the awards? We’ve done it for 25 years successfully, should we just try to have it for a 26th year, or not, under these pressures? We lost our founding partners, CUHK didn’t want to administer it anymore, so we decided, oh, well, let’s just try to do it ourselves, we’ll hire an administrator to do it.

But I did ask that administrator who we hired, a contractor, before we announce the winners, just flag me if there’s anything that’s going to be problematic. And sure enough once the judges were finished – we have nothing to do with the judging, it’s an independent judging group – and once the judges were finished, the administrator compiled it and he sent me back an email saying: there are going to be some that are problematic here. And he sent me back a list saying look, these are going to be really problematic and he said: I think we’re going to be investigated because of this. I said, now what do we do? So I took this to the press freedom committee and to the [FCC] board, and said, look, these are potentially problematic, some winners. We debated this long and hard, it was the most intense board meeting I think I’ve ever had. Should we give the awards to some and then withhold the ones that we think are going to be problematic? Or can we give them in secret to the ones that we think might cause problems? I sought out advice from people that I trust here, and some lawyers, and they all said yeah, if you go ahead and do this there’s a really good chance you might be violating the law, or at the very least you could be investigated for violating the law.

So what does being investigated mean? Well, first of all, the club is people, it’s not a building, so they would investigate the board, we’re the ones legally responsible for the club. It might mean police coming and asking for our membership list … and asking for the list of judges who gave these awards. And some of the judges actually asked that their names not be made public. But if we’re investigated and we’re asked to give them the list, we’d have to give the list. So all of these things were kind of weighed in here at the time. So after very emotional and intense debate, we figured there was no way we could move forward on this and preserve the integrity of the awards, so we decided to suspend the awards.

The names all leaked out, you know who they are, and I’m very happy that a former administrator of the Human Rights Press Awards who just left Hong Kong University last year and took up a post in Arizona rang me immediately and said I’ll take it, I’ll do it again. I’ve done it before. And he’s working with a couple of other Asian press clubs that I can’t announce yet because they haven’t okayed it, so it’s going to be fine. It’s going to go on, it’s going to be bigger than ever, he’s talking to a couple of other media outlets who are putting more money into it. It’s going to be fine. [2022] Winners, he told me, will all be recognized. But we just couldn’t do it here, and it’s a sad state of affairs on press freedom in Hong Kong that we couldn’t do it here. So this was a regrettable decision that the board had to make, but I had to think in the interest of the staff of the club, the judges. And also we have assets in the bank, and we know what happens when they’ve launched investigations into PTU [the Professional Teachers’ Union, Hong Kong’s largest teacher’s union, which disbanded after being attacked by pro-Beijing media in an attempt to pre-empt an asset freeze and investigation by national security police.] and other organizations – Apple Daily, Stand News – the first thing they do is freeze your assets while there’s an investigation. If they freeze your assets here we can’t pay our vendors, we can’t pay our staff, and that’s the end of the FCC.

So I know it caused a bit of controversy, because some people on the press freedom committee said we should have just gone full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead, let’s man the barricades on this one, but the board that’s responsible for this decision voted 15-1, near unanimously, and that’s the majority of correspondent and journalist members who said there’s just no way we can do this without putting the club in serious legal jeopardy. And that’s just not something I was going to do as president. That’s not something that most of the board members were going to do.

Moderator: So if the awards aren’t being held, and statements are being put out very carefully, what should the role of the club be, or what discussions need to be had?

Keith Richburg:

That’s a good question, and I’m sure that’ll be discussed greatly when we have our annual general meeting … I think there’s still things we can do here, but we have to do it within the law; we always obey the law. And we have to know when we can be smart about it. And we have to know when we can navigate the red lines, if we can. I think there’s still a role for the FCC here. And some of these things I mentioned before – access to information, journalists being able to stand up and ask questions at press conferences, the government not weaponizing the visa process – these are all things the FCC can still speak out about and should speak out about. We’ve had workshops for journalists where we’ve invited local journalists in to get hostile environment training, and you’re seeing the need for that in places like Ukraine. There are still things the FCC can do here, but there may be some instances where we say well, this is going to be treading a little bit too close to a red line that might get us a police investigation and get the whole club shut down, so maybe we’d better hold back on this one.

So I know some friends – I think they’re still friends – think that we should just be absolutists about it. If we can’t have the Human Rights Press Awards we shouldn’t do anything, we should just shut down and be a drinking club. I don’t agree with that. I think as long as we can still make a difference here we should still be here and make a difference.

Of course [press freedom] has been weakened. But we’re living in China now. Look … I’ve noticed people [on Twitter] sitting in London who have left Hong Kong or … in New York who’ve left Hong Kong saying the FCC is kowtowing to China … And my answer to them is: well, it’s really easy for you to say that from London and New York and Washington because we live in China. Which part of Hong Kong SAR China don’t you understand? Yeah, we live in China. We have to deal with the rules in the place where we are, and we have to be smart about it.

And again, people who said we should have gone ahead and done the Human Rights Press Awards, fine, I respect that as a principled position. My question is, once I laid out the potential legal [consequences] … the possibility that we might have our assets frozen, we could have our membership list taken by the police, we could have our computers confiscated, would you have just gone ahead? Was that a risk you were willing to take? And don’t forget, if they investigate the FCC, who’s legally responsible for the FCC? It’s the board. The board is legally responsible. It’s not the press freedom committee, it’s not the staff, it’s the board. The board is the one who would be investigated and potentially get a 6 am knock at the door. Were you ready?

Look, everybody has their own level of risk … What risk are you willing to take? And … if I weren’t on the board and I weren’t president, sure, I would have criticized the decision to cancel. But I didn’t have the luxury of taking a stand. The board had to make a decision, and we made that decision. I thought it was regretful, but it was the best decision in the interest of the club.