HONG KONG -- The New York Times said it is moving its Asia-based digital news operations from Hong Kong to Seoul, the first plan by a foreign news organization to relocate employees out of the city since the introduction of the new security law.
Hong Kong's press freedom, under both colonial rule and since the 1997 handover to China from Britain, has made it a prime location for international media outlets reporting on the emergence of China as a rising global power.
The security law has prompted much speculation among news organizations with significant operations in Hong Kong over what they are permitted to report and publish without violating the new law. Many have sought legal advice.
"China's sweeping new national security law in Hong Kong has created a lot of uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism," the Times wrote in a staff memo. "We feel it is prudent to make contingency plans and begin to diversify our editing staff around the region."
As well as its digital news team in Hong Kong -- about one third of its staff in the financial hub -- the Times has a group of editors handling The New York Times International Edition, a print version that is published Monday to Saturday. Other reporters and the print team will stay put, the Times said, adding that the company's "advertising and marketing staff are also expected to stay."
The Times said it considered Bangkok, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, and other cities in the Asia-Pacific region in the selection process. "South Korea proved attractive, among other reasons, for its friendliness to foreign business, independent press, and its central role in several major Asian news stories," the publication said.
"Hong Kong has been a leader in supporting the rights of a free press in Asia for decades, and it is essential that it continues to do so, particularly given the treatment of members of the independent press within mainland China and the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic," a New York Times spokesperson said in a statement to the Nikkei Asian Review.
"Given the uncertainty of the moment, we are making plans to geographically diversify our editing staff around the region. We will maintain a large presence in Hong Kong and have every intention of maintaining our coverage of Hong Kong and China," the statement said.
"We plan to retain our business and print hub in Hong Kong while, over time, moving our digital editing hub to Seoul, giving us flexibility while keeping all of our resources easily accessible and in the region."
The new security law targets the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, but its broad and vague terms have sparked concern over its scope. Earlier this month, U.S. internet companies, including Facebook and Google, said they would suspend the processing of Hong Kong government requests for user data pending review of the law.
The introduction of the law came after yearlong anti-government protests that often brought the city to a standstill and in part drove the city to economic recession.
Other foreign news companies with Hong Kong-based Asia hubs or newsgathering operations include The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Financial Times, Reuters, CNN and Agence France-Presse. The FT is owned by Nikkei, which has Japanese-language and English-language news operations in Hong Kong.
"We're monitoring the situation closely but have no immediate plans to move staff out of Hong Kong," FT spokeswoman Rhonda Taylor told Nikkei.
A Journal employee familiar with the matter told Nikkei that the company is considering "alternative arrangements in case it becomes impossible" to continue operations in Hong Kong. One possible scenario is moving some or all of its news operations to another city in the region, including Tokyo, although discussions are very preliminary, said the person, who asked not to be identified.
A second Journal source said it is "considering" Tokyo, where it already has a bureau, as a location for some Hong Kong staff. A spokesperson for Dow Jones, a unit of News Corp and the publisher of the Journal, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong has said it is requesting further clarification of the new law.
"The FCC has written to the chief executive seeking clarity on specific areas where the new law is vague and where terms are undefined, particularly regarding the press and freedom of speech," it said in a July 7 statement. "To operate within the new law, the media needs to know precisely what is permissible."
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong on Monday released a survey of its members, in which a majority of respondents, or roughly 76%, said "they were somewhat concerned or extremely concerned" about the law. A joint survey released Wednesday by Japanese business organizations and the consulate general in Hong Kong showed 81.4% of respondents were either "greatly concerned" or "concerned" about the law.
In an interview with Nikkei last month, Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole delegate on the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said the new law will also be applied to foreign businesses and media in the former British colony.
"Everyone is equal before the law. There is no exception for people or businesses in the city," he said in comments before details of the legislation were announced on June 30. Tam added that businesspeople "need not to worry" as long as they do not transgress the red line of national security.
Asked if journalists reporting on sensitive issues -- including calls for Hong Kong independence or the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown -- could be penalized, Tam said companies should "seek professional legal advice" after the security law is enacted.
In March, Beijing ordered journalists working in mainland China for the Times, the Journal and the Post to leave the country and revoked their press credentials.
A month earlier China had expelled three Journal reporters, a day after Washington designated five Chinese state-owned media organizations -- among them CGTV and China Daily -- as government operatives and imposed personnel caps on their operations in the U.S.
Additional reporting by Zach Coleman, Andrew Sharp and Kenji Kawase