The New York Times Company

06/21/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/21/2024 05:43

Joe Kahn Delivers 2024 SOPA Awards Keynote Address

Over many of the past 26 years I've been an eager competitor for SOPA's awards as well as an admirer of the work the organization does. SOPA has been recognizing and encouraging local, regional and international organizations that make serious, well reported, innovative and revealing coverage of Asia a top priority.

This organization's regional scope, the inclusion of work in both English and Chinese, and the welcoming of entries from locally based as well as international publications makes it really unusual in the world of journalism prizes. It reflects the global outlook of East, Southeast and South Asia, and this region's openness to ideas and competition from around the world.

What impresses me this year is how many peers we have among the entries, including this year's crop - in fine writing, immersive storytelling, the urgency of breaking news and the patience and resources it takes to produce outstanding investigative work.

I'm proud and inspired by the work of our peers shown in these entries, and I hope all of you are as well.

We all know, though, this is not the full story of our industry and the political environment it faces at the moment, particularly in China and here in Hong Kong.

We're living through a period of severe challenges to quality journalism almost everywhere.

In the United States and Europe, the disruption of the news media industry by tech platforms has diminished the resources for expensive, labor-intensive original journalism. It has also encouraged the personalization of news and information and polarization of its consumers. Many people are now fed a diet of so-called news in social media feeds that mixes fact, opinion, and misinformation designed to generate engagement rather than ensure accuracy, fairness or deeper understanding.

Around the globe, journalists also face rising threats to their safety and security. Record or near record numbers of them are being killed or jailed. This is not only the result of horrific toll on journalists bravely documenting major conflicts, including Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Gaza, dangerous as those are. It is also because of the demonizing and, all too often, the murder of reporters in places where we all once hoped to see greater openness and protections for the news media and the people who take great personal risks to bear witness.

Here in Hong Kong, all of us face the chilling effect of the new security laws. They have continued to threaten press freedoms in a place that once prided itself as a haven in a volatile region.

The prosecution of Jimmy Lai and the shuttering of the Apple Daily, after a quarter century of operation, continues to resonate globally as a sign of Hong Kong's sad departure from its tradition of free speech and free press. Jimmy was for years widely regarded both for his proud independence and innovative spirit. Today, he is a worldwide symbol of intolerance.

Everyone in this room understands the corrosive effect the National Security Law continues to have. The Reuters Digital News report, released just this week, makes for sobering reading.

  • Journalists in Hong Kong have to deal with potential red lines that could lead to charges of 'secession', 'subversion', 'terrorism', and 'collusion with foreign organizations.
  • The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club found that three-quarters of its members worried about the possibility of arrest or prosecution from their reporting or editing. And most of those acknowledged engaging in self-censorship in their writing through avoiding certain topics.

For generations of colleagues at The New York Times, and for me personally, Hong Kong represented something very different.

In the early 1950s, The Times began basing reporters in Hong Kong as a listening post to understand the upheavals in mainland China. Our first correspondent, Henry R. Lieberman, was also the founding president of the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Joseph Lelyveld, who would go on to hold my job, executive editor, served as our Hong Kong bureau chief in the 1970s.

For them, mainland China remained largely inaccessible to Western journalists, and Hong Kong developed its global reputation as a bridge between East and West, open to both, a hub of information, free exchange and debate.

Correspondents here alerted the world, and perhaps some in China itself, to the extent of the great famine, in part because Hong Kong relatives began shipping food to relatives across the border. Hong Kong journalists first learned of internecine fighting during the Cultural Revolution, in part because of bodies spotted floating down the Pearl River from Guangzhou.

I first came to Hong Kong as a correspondent in 1989, after Chinese authorities canceled my visa and told me to leave Beijing in 1989 after the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Hong Kong for me became a glittering refuge. Admittedly that was partly because I could buy shaving cream and newspapers again, or because I was treated to free beers at the FCC in exchange for my accounts of the goings on across the border.

But also because Hong Kong lived up to a reputation as a free city that welcomes so many people and thrives on the dynamism that comes from openness and tolerance.

On my many subsequent visits, including a stint living here around the handover in 1997, Hong Kong evolved but always had a special role. Whatever was unfolding across the border, the people of this city, especially in its bustling journalism community, cared deeply, gathered information assiduously, and sought to move China toward prosperity and moderation. Hong Kong people also offered the outside world greater understanding and acceptance of China's history and culture.

I took particular pride in the expansion of The Times' operations in Hong Kong during the years I ran the international desk. At the peak, we had a few dozen reporters and editors here, coordinating our digital operations through the Asian day, reporting on a wide range of news throughout the region, and producing the international print edition of The Times.

The National Security Law has changed that picture significantly. We're a global news operation that requires firm legal protections for its journalists and staff. So we felt we had little choice but to create another base of operations in Seoul. I know other international media organizations have also reduced their staff here.

Many Chinese digital media companies have not had the option of moving, and have been forced to reduce or close down altogether, a great loss for a place that once prided itself of experimentation and openness.

Yet despite these setbacks, I still have confidence that good journalism will prove its value and ultimately prevail. Open-minded, well rounded, and fact-based reporting treats readers with respect and arms them with the information and perspectives they need to make sense of their world at a confusing time.

Even when journalism challenges us - especially when it challenges us - it makes our societies stronger. It helps people and governments to make better choices - to confront reality and to address problems.

Hong Kong also remains an important base for us. We still have a robust reporting team here that covers Hong Kong itself and, as in decades past, reports on a wide range of developments, social, economic, diplomatic and political, across the border.

Joining this year's SOPA awards, and visiting here for the first time in several years, gave me the chance to re-engage with some of the work being produced by many organizations here and around the region. Even in a difficult environment, I see lots of examples of outstanding journalism that have real impact.

I see that from organizations like Rappler, focusing on abuses of domestic workers, and China Global South, on the displacement of people by China's clean energy projects.

Ming Pao has done important reporting on the revival of commemorations of June 4 after the passage of Article 23. Hong Kong Free Press offers robust beat reporting on local politics. And I noticed the SCMP's scoop on how Xi Jinping blamed "frustrated students" for the protests against China's zero Covid lockdowns.

And on the mainland, Caixin still produces vital explanatory work about Chinese policy making and finance that takes readers behind the scenes of an increasingly impenetrable bureaucracy.

That kind of journalism takes courage today. But it makes a difference. Hong Kong, China, this region and the world are depending on your resolve and resilience now more than ever.

Thank you.

Watch back the SOPA 2024 Editorial Awards 亞洲卓越新聞獎 Livestream
Read the full list of SOPA Editorial Excellence Finalists and Winners