Asia’s biggest human rights press awards suspended over concerns around Hong Kong security law

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Pro-democracy protesters march for human rights in Hong Kong in 2019 (Reuters)
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Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) has cancelled its annual Human Rights Press Awards to avoid “unintentionally” violating the Chinese-controlled territory’s sweeping national security law.

Keith Richburg, former Washington Post journalist and the president of the FCC, in a statement on Monday to members, said its board had “regretfully decided to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards pending further review”.

The suspension of one of the most prestigious awards in Asia that have been run for more than 25 years is seen as the latest setback for the former British colony’s independent media, which is already struggling in the backdrop of a drastic erosion of free speech.

Mr Richburg’s statement added that, over the last two years, journalists in Hong Kong have been operating under new “red lines” on “what is and is not permissible, but there remain significant areas of uncertainty and we do not wish unintentionally to violate the law”.

The board, which has members from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other global news media organisations, called off the awards despite completing the judging process.

The winners of the awards were expected to be announced on 3 May to mark World Press Freedom Day.

According to Reuters, Mr Richburg had explained to the club’s human rights committee that the decision was made to protect its staff and members from legal risks.

“Keith explains decision... to suspend the HKPA (Human Rights Press Awards) due to concerns over legal risks to the club, staff, members and judges from awarding four awards and five merits to Stand News,” the email read.

Eight committee members, however, reportedly resigned shortly after the decision was made.

Journalist Timothy McLaughlin, a former recipient of the award, announced his resignation from the committee on Twitter, adding it was “both angering and sad to see the awards cancelled in such a manner”.

Washington Post bureau chief Shibani Mahtani resigned from the committee as well, saying she did not stand by the decision.

“It is an award that meant something not only to Hong Kong but journalists across Asia who covered some of the most consequential developments in the region last year -- from the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan to the continued plight of the Uyghurs to, yes, Hong Kong,” she wrote on Twitter.

Ms Mahtani added: “Have strongly recommended to the FCC president and its current board that we should seriously rethink the role of the press freedom committee and the club as a whole. I believe it is no longer able to serve its core mission: to defend and promote the press.”

Earlier this month veteran journalist Allan Au was arrested on a charge of “conspiracy to publish seditious materials”, the latest blow against press freedom in the city.

Under the draconian law implemented in 2020 in the wake of pro-democracy protests, crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

According to a report by Reporters Without Borders published in December 2021, China is the world’s biggest captor of journalists, with at least 127 currently detained by Chinese authorities.

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