Hong Kong university scraps World Press Photo exhibit over ‘safety’ fears

HONG KONG: A Hong Kong university has scrapped an exhibition of World Press Photo winners just days ahead of its opening, citing “safety and security” fears.

The decision by Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) comes as Beijing and local authorities oversee a sweeping crackdown on dissent in the city.

World Press Photo is an annual competition that awards “the best visual journalism” around the world each year.

AFP photographer Yasuyoshi Chiba bagged last year’s top prize with an image of a man in Sudan reciting poetry during anti-government protests.

The exhibition was also set to include prize-winning images of the huge and often violent protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019.

“After giving due consideration to campus safety and security, and the need to maintain pandemic control, Hong Kong Baptist University considers that it is not an appropriate time to hold the ‘World Press Photo Exhibition 2020’ on its campus,” the university said in a brief statement.

The university did not elaborate on what those safety fears were.

READ: Top Hong Kong university cuts ties with student union over national security concerns

Robin Ewing, director of HKBU’s International Journalism programme, said she was “disappointed that our students and the people of Hong Kong will not be able to see the exhibition in person”.

“The decision was made at the top level of the university,” she told AFP.

In a statement on its Facebook account, the organising committee of the World Press Photo Exhibition Hong Kong confirmed HKBU had pulled out three days before the exhibition’s start.

“We regret it for Hong Kong and for everyone who helped to bring this project to life,” the organisers said.

The statement did not say why HKBU had pulled out.

READ: Hong Kong crafting ‘patriotic’ oath for local councils, Beijing wants loyalists in charge

MEDIA JITTERS

It is not the first time the World Press Photo has struggled to exhibit inside China.

Last October an annual exhibition in neighbouring Macau, which had run for more than a decade without incident, was suddenly shut down without explanation by authorities.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are former colonies that were granted certain freedoms unseen in the Chinese mainland when they returned to communist China’s rule.

Those rights are disappearing under the central government’s tightening grip.

Hong Kong has experienced particularly intense changes – last year Beijing imposed a sweeping security law on the finance hub that outlawed much dissent.

Authorities said the law was needed to return stability.

Dozens of critics and democracy campaigners have since been arrested under the new law, including Jimmy Lai, the owner of the popular pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

READ: Hong Kong court says Jimmy Lai’s bail denied because risk of further offences

Hong Kong has long served as a vibrant media hub thanks to its business friendly environment, easy visa rules, independent judiciary and speech protections. Its universities also boast some of the best journalism schools in Asia.

But the city has steadily slid down annual press freedom ranking lists in recent years.

The security law has further compounded those fears – one article of the law specifically orders authorities to “strengthen management” of foreign media.

Last year the New York Times announced it was relocating many of its staff from its Asia news hub in Hong Kong to South Korea because of the law and concerns about obtaining visas.

On the Chinese mainland all local media is state controlled and heavily censored, while foreign journalists are routinely monitored, restricted, harassed and – on occasions – expelled for their reporting.

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