As Hong Kong moved from 2019 to COVID-19, streets once jammed with protesters suddenly lay empty. The pandemic could not have come at a better time for the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities.

Following months of mass demonstrations – which saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers demand independence from China – critics say both governments have been using COVID as a cover to crack down on dissent and push through laws that would further curb the city’s freedoms. 

“Beijing certainly wants to ensure that the protests, the likes of which we saw last year, cannot be allowed to happen again. So they may be pushing through some controversial legislation, including national security laws and we’ve also seen pro-democracy figures rounded up. To be having all of this happening with a backdrop of COVID-19 and the social distancing measures in place I think, is no coincidence”, explains Tom Grundy, co-founder of the news outlet, Hong Kong Free Press. 

One of the 15 prominent pro-democracy figures rounded up last month was a businessman called Jimmy Lai. Lai is a billionaire who owns the Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-largest newspaper and the city’s only openly pro-democracy mainstream outlet.

The Listening Post’s Johanna Hoes spoke with Mark Simon, an executive at Next Digital, the media conglomerate that owns the Apple Daily, and he made the point that: “Beijing was not gonna let a crisis go to waste. Lai and Apple Daily have been a thorn in the side of the Beijing-appointed government for as long as, basically, we’ve been around, since 1997. Arresting these people, that was a major move that they knew they could get away with just because of the coronavirus.”

In a media landscape dominated by news outlets that are either under direct control of the Chinese Communist Party or in the hands of businesses with close ties to the mainland, Apple Daily’s coverage of the protests was hugely popular among those on the streets.

But it was not the only outlet demonstrators turned to for news. For many nascent, digital media organisations, the democracy movement presented a news story – and even a financial opportunity – like no other.  

“People really saw that the independent, newer outfits were the ones that were showing what was really happening on the front lines and they didn’t feel that they were compromised in the same way that they perceived the mainstream media to be. So there was real support for these outlets”, explains Yuen Chan, senior lecturer at City University in London.

One of the protesters’ go-to new media outlets was Stand News. Its deputy assignment editor, Ronson Chan, explains his organisation’s new-found popularity resulted in a huge financial boost. But as soon as the pandemic hit, those resources started to dry up.

“For Stand News, the entire movement presented such a change – we had a significant increase in donations and our team grew from 10 to 30. But the pandemic has affected the economy. A lot of our readers who previously sponsored us are newly unemployed. Plus, we have seen fewer demonstrations so we have fewer live broadcasts and people have less interest in our platform.” 

New protests this past week – albeit on a smaller scale – may be a sign that Hong Kongers are ready to return to the streets, despite the pandemic. The question is whether it is too late for outlets like Stand News. 

Produced by: Johanna Hoes 

Contributors:

Mark Simon – Executive, Apple Daily

Yuen Chan – Senior Lecturer, City University of London

Ronson Chan – Deputy Assignment Editor, Stand News 

Tom Grundy – Co-founder, Hong Kong Free Press 

Source: Al Jazeera News



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