Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) has suspended its annual Human Rights Press Awards so as not to "unintentionally" violate any laws, according to a statement from the club president on Monday.
The cancellation of the awards, run for more than a quarter of a century and among the most prestigious in Asia, is the latest blow to media freedoms following the introduction of a national security law in 2020 to bring the former British colony into line with the rest of China.
FCC president Keith Richburg, a former veteran Washington Post journalist and current head of the University of Hong Kong's journalism school, said in the statement the awards had been suspended given "significant areas of uncertainty and we do not wish unintentionally to violate the law."
Richburg had explained earlier to the club's press freedom committee that the decision was made to protect its staff and members from legal risks, according to the minutes of a meeting seen by Reuters.
The minutes spelled out potential risks arising from proposed awards for Stand News, a liberal online news portal that was forced to shut in December after several of its top editors were arrested on suspicion of publishing seditious articles.
"Keith explains decision ... to suspend the HRPA (Human Rights Press Awards) due to concerns over legal risks to the club, staff, members and judges from awarding four awards and five merits to Stand News," the email read.
"Keith further explains that the environment in Hong Kong has changed and the FCC must also change in order to survive."
The FCC board, which includes journalists from Reuters Breakingviews, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and others, made the decision to suspend the awards on Saturday, having already completed the judging process.
Three members of the press freedom committee – Shibani Mahtani, Timothy McLaughlin and Mary Hui - tweeted that they had resigned.
"I feel nothing but the deepest regret and do not stand by this decision," wrote Mahtani, who was also a judge for the awards. Five other committee members also resigned according to the minutes.
Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not seen in mainland China, including free speech and a free press, under a "one country, two systems" agreement in 1997 on its handover from British to Chinese rule.
Advocacy groups and some Western governments say authorities are trampling on those freedoms, with a crackdown intensifying under the national security law that has seen civil society groups disbanded, democratic activists arrested or forced into exile, and media outlets shuttered.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong's national security police arrested Allan Au, a veteran journalist and former contributing writer with Stand News, for alleged sedition.
Hong Kong authorities reject assertions they are cracking down on freedoms.