Hong Kong journalist trades his camera for a taxi amid media crackdown

Stanley Lai once raced through the streets of Hong Kong as a photographer for Apple Daily, but now a strict new law forced him into a different job. (Video: Diana Chan, Jason Aldag)

HONG KONG — Stanley Lai took one last drag on his cigarette before sliding into the driver’s seat of his red and white taxi. He raised the “for hire” sign, snapped on his seat belt and lined up three phones, each dedicated to a purpose: navigation, music and instant messaging chats. His shift was about to begin.

Lai, 53, is a taxi driver out of necessity rather than choice. He is one of about 700 journalists and editorial staff who lost their jobs after politically motivated crackdowns shuttered three major news organizations in the past 10 months. A photojournalist for more than three decades, Lai now weaves through Hong Kong’s streets the same way he once rushed to document burglaries, accidents and protests, but without his camera and with passengers in tow instead.

Hong Kong’s media was once a microcosm of the city’s politics: boisterous and uncensored. Stanley Lai’s former employer, Apple Daily, exemplified the freewheeling media: fearless in criticism of political leaders, extensive in coverage of courts and investigations, the first to break gossip and celebrity news.

That changed after pro-democracy protests in 2019. Open reporting went hand in hand with the demonstrations: hundreds of journalists identifiable in yellow vests moved among the protesters, live-streaming abuses at the hands of officers, violent demonstrations and large-scale, peaceful gatherings.

When authorities moved to crush dissent through a national security law, they also began to rein in the press. Rife with ambiguities, the broad and vaguely defined crimes stipulated in the law do not distinguish between the media and others. Anyone can be accused of secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, and could face a maximum of life imprisonment.

Letters from Hong Kong’s jails

The security law passed on the last day of June 2020, and Apple Daily quickly became among its first targets. In August of the same year, nearly 200 police officers cordoned off and raided the headquarters of Apple Daily and arrested founder Jimmy Lai under the security law. Police again raided the offices 10 months later, arresting top editors and freezing the company’s assets, forcing it to cease operations.

The media crackdown hasn’t stopped there. Last week, Allan Au, a columnist, veteran journalist and author of a book on Hong Kong’s press censorship, was arrested for allegedly conspiring to publish seditious materials, a crime punishable by up to two years in jail. Au’s arrest marked the first time authorities targeted an individual writer, rather than a newsroom executive.

Stanley Lai was among one of 600 Apple Daily reporters who were suddenly jobless when Apple Daily closed last year, with few sustainable alternatives in the industry. Months later, Stand News and Citizen News closed down, taking with them around 100 more jobs. Some journalists now work in smaller newsrooms; others have gone independent, surviving on donations and freelance work. At least half the former Apple Daily journalists have changed careers, like Stanley Lai.

Hong Kong’s press landscape darkens

“There is nothing much you can do about it,” Stanley Lai said. “If you’ve decided to stay in Hong Kong, you can only quietly go along with it.”

The media continues to have to adapt to the new Hong Kong. One news outlet, Now News, apologized in March after a reporter asked at a news conference how a patient could file a complaint against a mainland health-care worker in the event of a mishap. Hong Kong was in the midst of a coronavirus crisis, and authorities brought in workers from China who have different licensing protocols. Pro-Beijing critics attacked the reporter, accusing her of “spreading hatred” and violating the security law.

In January, state newspaper Ta Kung Pao accused Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, for unfairly vilifying Hong Kong’s space for freedom of expression and lambasted the association for infiltrating and brainwashing schools with “biased” media talks.

“It was clear to anyone what happened in Hong Kong in the past six months … there is no need to vilify,” Chan said, adding that the association has always taught students to read both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing newspapers for a “balanced mind-set and clear vision to accept different views.”

Hong Kong authorities are now conducting a study on combating fake news and disinformation, which if it was turned into a law would easily pass in the legislature, which no longer has any opposition.

Stanley Lai passes the building that houses the legislature, the Legislative Council Complex, on his way to pick up his taxi every afternoon. The cylindrical glass building was the heart of political life in Hong Kong, a center of raucous debate and a frequent target of protests. There, he used to gather with other journalists on a smoke break or while awaiting assignments.

“When my bus passes by, I will look out of the bus window and wonder if I will see any familiar faces,” he said. He never does.