The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the popular watering hole for journalists in Hong Kong, may need to give a serious thought about moving into larger premises.
Yes, the press club may soon have more people lining up for membership.
Consider these facts: BBC will move a part of its operation here, so will the International New York Times. And Reuters has just opened a new office in Central.
The added strength of foreign media outlets is good news for Hong Kong, where many publications are in cost-cutting mode and are also facing an uphill battle in holding aloft press freedoms.
While the local media is in a glum mood overall, foreign organizations appear to be viewing Hong Kong with new interest.
BBC World Service, for example, plans to cut 16 jobs in its London office and open 10 positions in Hong Kong for its Chinese language service. The reshuffle will help the global media giant cut costs on the service by about a sixth.
As expected, the relocation plan hasn’t gone down well with the BBC union, which is worried about a potential threat to editorial independence and integrity as the Chinese staff will be housed in a territory controlled by Beijing.
Moreover, there are fears that the personal safety of the staff, especially those who have been critical of Beijing, could be at risk.
A union leader, Howard Zhang, made the following remarks: “Offshoring this service, chopping it at the roots and transplanting it to Hong Kong is incredibly short-sighted.”
Hong Kong is not the ideal place for media relocation, Zhang said, citing growing concerns over the threat to press freedoms in the city.
The sacking of a top editor at Ming Pao newspaper, a change in ownership at South China Morning Post and the disappearance of some booksellers were cited as red flags that point to Beijing’s attempts to control media discourse in Hong Kong.
A BBC spokesman, however, dismissed the fears, saying the Chinese staff in Hong Kong will be “able to report… independently and without interference from authorities”.
Dozens of international media organizations have regional headquarters or offices in Hong Kong, he pointed out.
Sure, BBC is not the only global media titan that is expanding its operations here.
On Monday, news and data giant Reuters opened a new office in the city, prompting Financial Secretary John Tsang to proclaim that Hong Kong is an ideal hub in Asia for information exchange.
Meanwhile, there is news that The New York Times will close some editing and press operations in Paris and shift the work to Hong Kong and New York.
The move is part of a plan to redesign the international edition “to make it better, more relevant and crucially, more economically sustainable in an increasing digital world”, a company official said.
There is no doubt that international media outlets think that Hong Kong, with its close proximity to China and advanced infrastructure, makes for a good choice in terms of a regional base.
Also, despite the recent concerns about Beijing’s increasing grip over the territory, Hong Kong still offers a great degree of protection to journalists and free speech.
Another reason I can think of is the relatively weak labor union structure in Hong Kong, which provides more flexibility for media firms to retrench staff or cut back on operations when necessary.
Moreover, we should bear in mind that global media outlets would want to stay close to where their big news often comes from.
Stories related to the “One Country, Two Systems”, not to speak of various matters pertaining to mainland China, can be given better play by having large editorial teams in Hong Kong.
Imagine, for instance, how many more interesting stories the global media would have dug up on the missing booksellers case if the outlets had stronger bureaus in the city.
While journalists may face some low-intensity pressure, is there any place in the world that can guarantee a totally stress-free operating environment? The answer is no.
Experienced foreign journalists would, in fact, tell you that challenging conditions will only make them push harder and help them land better stories.
In the meanwhile, the media can draw comfort from the fact that our chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is at least paying lip service to the cause of press freedom.
Speaking at a media event Monday, Leung said “freedom of the press is essential to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness and free society.”
“In other words, protecting freedom of the press means protecting Hong Kong’s way of life.”
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