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The new journalism outfit that is shaking up Hong Kong’s establishment media

Launched in the wake of the city’s Occupy protests, Hong Kong Free Press aims to “shine a light in dark places”.

Linda van der Horst
28 September 2015
 Hong Kong Free Press. All rights reserved.

Tom Grundy. Credit: Hong Kong Free Press. All rights reserved.A year ago, he was just a journalism student at Hong Kong University. Now he runs a hot-item fresh news outlet in Hong Kong.

Tom Grundy, a 32-year-old from England, came over to Hong Kong ten years ago to teach. At the same time, he was freelancing as a journalist, blogging and taking up social advocacy. He once even tried to arrest Tony Blair for war crimes.

Now he is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), a not-for-profit media outlet that launched in June this year, and has already hit monthly traffic of almost one million unique visitors.

These tycoons, who also have major business interests in mainland China, own the dominant media outlets in Hong Kong

HKFP aims to address a gap in the critical coverage of news in Hong Kong, within the English-language media landscape. “If you want to tell the Hong Kong story beyond its borders you have to do it in English, which is now dominated by one media group,” says Grundy, referring to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) owned by the Kuok media group – one of Asia’s prominent tycoon families. These tycoons, who also have major business interests in mainland China, own the dominant media outlets in Hong Kong and have been criticised for biased media coverage.

In the years before, but in particular in the run-up to and during the Occupy movement, there have been incidents where local journalists critical of the Hong Kong or Beijing government have been attacked, intimidated or harassed. These attacks were, in particular, targeted at editors and the offices of the pro-democracy Chinese-language outlet Apple Daily; incidents which, Grundy says, were “underreported” by other media. 

Free Speech, Free Hong Kong rally, 2014. Demotix/PH Yang. All rights reserved.

Free Speech, Free Hong Kong rally, 2014. Demotix/PH Yang. All rights reserved.As a result, observers such as Reporters Without Borders have warned of the on-going deterioration of press freedom; they placed Hong Kong in seventieth place in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, a drop from their thirty-fourth place in 2010, which it attributed to the growing ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong.

The attacks on and threat to press freedom is “at the heart of what we are doing and why we set HKFP up and structured it in such a way”, says Grundy. HKFP does not have any shareholders. It is aiming to rely on a diverse stream of income in order to avoid relying too much on advertisers, and thus preserve its independence.

Its aim was to “shine a light in dark places”

Considering that HKFP was launched in the wake of the Occupy protests, many were hopeful or critical, depending on your political stance, that HKFP would become a pro-democracy type of outlet. But Grundy has been very clear right from the start that HKFP would be as impartial as possible, and that its aim was to “shine a light in dark places”.

Grundy does admit, however, that HKFP’s readership tends towards the pro-democracy side. Perhaps this is merely testament to the fact that an outlet like HKFP caters to an otherwise under-served audience. But the pro-establishment position has also been difficult to represent, as it has been hard to get people from the conservative pro-establishment to speak up, says Grundy. “We really knocked on doors and made ourselves known at LegCo [Hong Kong’s Legislative Committee] and have invited lawmakers and pro-establishment figures.” Grundy reassures: the platform is open to them.

 Hong Kong Free Press. All rights reserved.

Credit: Hong Kong Free Press. All rights reserved.HKFP has so far not met any resistance, intimidation or other kind of pressure, possibly due to the fact that they are still considered a small fish in the pond. The only hindrance they have encountered has been the archaic government infrastructure, which does not allow HKFP access to press releases, as it is an online-only outlet. But Grundy jokingly says that he “would be quite flattered if I was invited to tea at the [Beijing] Liaison Office”. HKFP is also still accessible in mainland China, but any censorship there, Grundy says, would be a “badge of honour”.

Grundy recognises that there are increasing concerns over creeping censorship, or ‘mainlandisation’, in Hong Kong. “Every few weeks there will be something that is either somewhat relaxed or integrated when it comes to our place in relation to the mainland,” says Grundy, referring to all kinds of increased integration, from visas to transport and economic links.

Censorship in mainland China would be a “badge of honour”

Looking ahead to 2047, when Hong Kong’s ‘Special Administrative Region’ status expires and the city is blended into mainland China, Grundy believes that the discussion of Hong Kong’s future needs to be had now. “It is only when you zoom out and look at what’s been happening over a longer period that you realise, ‘oh shit – this has been allowed to happen’,” and perhaps, he says, you will not see massive protests over a single incident, “but they add up, and this is why people are beginning to debate the future of Hong Kong towards 2047.” It is against this backdrop that a more diverse spectrum of media content is so important.

Grundy often refers to himself as “the idiot in charge”, especially an idiot that does not speak any Cantonese or Mandarin. But his innovative media outlet has managed to find a niche in the Hong Kong media market, and perhaps its lean and fresh online business model, with only four staffers and two co-founders, may persist under competitive pressure from the large tycoon-run outlets. “Considering our limited resources, it is still a sort of miracle that we are pulling off 15 to 20 pieces of content each day,” says Grundy.

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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