If you have any interest in Hong Kong journalism, politics or social issues, you’ve probably heard of the Hong Kong Free Press and its founder, Tom Grundy. The independent, non-profit digital media platform aims to offer an alternative — yet equally high-quality — news source to the usual suspects. Completely run by journalists, HKFP sustains itself through a combination of donations, crowdfunding, advertising, events, and other streams. Since its founding in 2015, HKFP has covered milestones from the Umbrella Movement to the Mong Kok riots of 2016.
The man behind the mission, British expat Grundy took to journalism and non-profit work from a young age. After running a radio show and joining protests as a university student, he started freelancing as a journalist in 2005. We spoke to him about how HKFP has grown over the years, and what he expects from Hong Kong in the future.
There are a lot of push and pull factors with Hong Kong. Sometimes it’s the greatest place on Earth. Nature on your doorstep, 24/7 convenience, amazing infrastructure, connections to all of Asia and – of course – the weather. At other times, it feels like you’re trapped in some kind of abusive relationship. It’s crowded, polluted, expensive, a political pressure cooker and – of course – there’s the weather. I’m probably not alone in having a love/hate feeling about the city. But, overall, I prefer it to the UK and, after 13 years, it’s home.
The Umbrella Movement was when I really cut my teeth as a journalist whilst also being enrolled in a journalism masters. A week after the roads were cleared, I built the HKFP website for about HK$1,000. The idea was to build a non-profit platform in response to the declining press freedom situation, which would be an immune as possible to political and commercial pressure. We then contacted Fringebacker. No-one had crowdfunded for media before, so it needed some persuasion. But we ended up being their biggest campaign yet, raising three times the amount we were looking for. Which was a bit terrifying at the time.
I could reverse-engineer a cool story about [HKFP‘s founding] being deliberate and planned but, as a Brit, I was never much of an optimist and, as a ginger, I’m not especially confident! This keeps a lid on having big expectations, so it’s great that HKFP is entering its third year, as I barely expected us to survive year one. When we launched, no-one at HKFP, including myself, had ever worked in a newsroom before – which was a help and a hindrance. We were forced to do things the hard way, through trial-and-error. But nowadays, we’ve very efficient systems for reporting the news with speed and accuracy on a tiny budget. We learnt to keep costs down through teamwork, free digital tools, partnerships, and new revenue streams. The goal hasn’t changed though. We aim to amplify the voices of the voiceless. Aand be the most independent and credible English-language news source in Greater China.
Now, we’ve over 11,000 news and comment pieces published, and have given special focus to minorities, LGBTQ issues, law, democracy, and civil liberties. But our coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Handover last year was most memorable. We really proved ourselves during Xi Jinping’s visit with live blogs, op-eds, and Facebook Live reports – long before the government even recognised digital media as legitimate. The oath-taking drama at the legislature and our frontline, multimedia reporting during the 2016 Mong Kok unrest were both pretty dramatic too. The police asked to use our reporter’s footage in court, but we didn’t want to interfere.
We’ve had to deal with a cyberattack, a cyber-squatter, censorship in China, and death threats. Unfortunately, these things are not uncommon in Hong Kong, though they are even worse elsewhere in Asia. For years, we were also not recognized as a “real” media outlet by the government, and were barred from media events. We had full-time qualified staff, an office, official press passes, and a registered business, but we were banned from asking officials questions as we didn’t print on paper. After a years-long fight, and with support from the Journalists’ Association and lots of NGOs, the government finally relented last November.
Despite Hong Kong rising a couple of notches in this year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, things are still looking grim. The draconian national anthem law [criminalizing any abuse of the song], which is soon to kick in, and the inevitable legislation of national security laws will likely have a chilling effect on the media. What happens if we film someone mocking the anthem? Can we publish quotes from someone “illegally” advocating independence? I asked Carrie Lam about this directly, and she said “it depends”. We can expect elements of China’s great firewall to be rolled out in Hong Kong long before we’re absorbed into the Guangdong bay area in 2047.
Through new transport links, economic links, and cultural and demographic changes, Hong Kong’s integration into China is happening ever more quickly. It can’t be stopped, but Hongkongers can try to slow it down. The drip-drip erosion of the city’s identity, autonomy, and freedoms may not be internationally newsworthy every day, but China’s recent treatment of the SAR should act as a warning to other countries about how Beijing honors its promises.
As reporters, we will just do our best to write the first draft of history as objectively as we can.
From our Point of View series.