A Newsroom at the Edge of Autocracy

A Newsroom at the Edge of Autocracy

  • The South China Morning Post is arguably the world’s most important newspaper—for what it tells us about media freedoms as China’s power grows.

On the night of august 31, 2019, police officers rushed into a Hong Kong subway station, swinging their batons and chasing suspected anti-government protesters into the narrow carriageways of a parked train as an emergency warning blared overhead.

Like many pivotal moments of the city’s protest movement, the scenes were captured in photographs and live-streams by journalists and bystanders. The most enduring image from the incident shows a small group of people huddled by the subway door. Among them is a man crouching on the floor, holding his hand up toward the police in anguish and fear as he is doused by a thick stream of pepper spray.

Hong Kong’s protest movement was nearly three months old by then, and the police action marked a significant turning point. Reporters across the city tried to make sense of what they were seeing, and to properly explain the enormity of the moment: A subway station, once considered a safe space for commuters, had been breached; and the police, who just months earlier had been seen as trusted members of the community, had assaulted civilians despite no clear evidence of a major security threat.

At the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, the now-familiar breaking news scramble that would last until early the next morning was under way. How the paper handled that story has since become a source of tension among its journalists, sparking a controversy that is emblematic, many of them told me, of the broader conflicts over media freedoms in the territory as it faces an uncertain future. When I asked the paper’s executive editor about the episode, and more general questions about its protest coverage, he voraciously defended the outlet. Critics, he said, had tried to intimidate and bully SCMP journalists to “condition” the newspaper’s narrative to their own liking. “Should we bend to this kind of pressure?” he asked.