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A small handful of journalists are trying to keep press freedom alive in Hong Kong

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Press freedom in Hong Kong has taken a nosedive as Beijing tightens its control over the city. Editors have been arrested. Reporters have lost jobs. And some have simply called it quits. But as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, a handful have chosen something different.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In 2018, Lam Yin-pong left his job at a big TV station and went to work for a little-known online news outlet called Stand News. It had a handful of employees and a lot of potential but zero influence. Soon, everything would change.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

RUWITCH: Huge and, at times, violent protests against the government shook Hong Kong in 2019, and Stand News became a go-to source for frontline information and live-streamed videos.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: The government soon hit back, emboldened by a 2020 national security law. It arrested opposition politicians and protesters and turned against some of the most outspoken news outlets, like the newspaper Apple Daily and Stand News.

LAM YIN-PONG: I remember the night Stand News was closed. I go home, and I tell my wife, oh, I guess my path as a journalist has come to an end.

RUWITCH: Lam thought about becoming an Uber driver or a food delivery guy. But then...

LAM: After quite a while, maybe a month or a few weeks, I find a very strange situation on the internet in Hong Kong - is that suddenly all the news are gone. So I decided to set up my own news platform. I wanted to try one more time.

RUWITCH: The platform is called reNews, and it's small. It's one man sitting at a laptop in a tiny office. The thing is, though, Lam is not alone. A handful of small, independent online news outlets have popped up in Hong Kong in recent months. Ronson Chan also works at one of them. It's called Channel C.

RONSON CHAN: We cannot make news just like before, but there are still about 7 million people in Hong Kong. They still need news. They still need facts. They need truth.

RUWITCH: Chan says there's no way around self-censorship in today's Hong Kong. Both Channel C and Lam Yin-pong's reNews avoid sensitive political topics like elections. But they think there are still plenty of stories to be uncovered that can help make the city better. For example, one of Channel C's most popular stories was this one.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Cantonese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: A few months ago, they livestreamed a report about an apartment that was supposedly infested with rats. And nobody likes rats.

CHAN: It attract 10,000 people to watch, including my mother-in-law.

RUWITCH: The video and a follow-up have since had more than 400,000 clicks. Rats may sound parochial compared with heady issues like democracy, but living conditions are a perennially hot topic in Hong Kong, where affordable housing can be hard to find. Lam Yin-pong's reNews mostly does local interest stories, too. But he's also posted snippets on somewhat more sensitive issues like the fate of some of the people who took part in the 2019 protests.

LAM: If you want to do so-called real journalism, you want to say what you think is right, you have to prepare for those consequences of being arrested, going to jail.

RUWITCH: And that's a real concern in the current environment.

CEDRIC ALVIANI: We are unfortunately not optimistic.

RUWITCH: Cedric Alviani is head of the East Asia branch for Reporters Without Borders.

ALVIANI: The Chinese regime obviously believes that they can do what they want. They can suppress information in Hong Kong just like they have done in the mainland.

RUWITCH: He fears more journalists will be arrested in Hong Kong, those already in detention will be sentenced to harsh prison terms and that these small new media outlets won't last very long. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.