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June 30, 2015updated 07 Jul 2015 2:45pm

Activist turned editor who tried to arrest Tony Blair launches crowdfunded Hong Kong news website

An English political activist turned journalist, who once attempted to perform a citizen’s arrest on former prime minister Tony Blair, has launched a news website for Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Free Press, which launched yesterday and says it employs seven full-time journalists, is aiming to become the first major independent source of English-language news in the special administrative region of China, after crowdfunding just under £50,000.

It has been founded by British expat Tom Grundy, 32, who has lived in Hong Kong for ten years. A media graduate from Leeds University, Grundy moved to Hong Kong to teach English. He then set up an irreverent news blog HongWrong.com, worked for Time Out Hong Kong, and founded an NGO, the HK Helpers Campaign, for Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers.

According to Grundy, Hong Wrong attracts up to 330,000 unique visitors and 450,000 page views a month. He decided to launch a more serious site in December last year while covering Occupy demonstrations in the area. Hong Wrong will remain a part of the new website.

He told Press Gazette: “I cut my teeth on Occupy, when the world's attention was on the youth who were demonstrating on the street for the months-long demonstrations, when the world media flew in. I was lucky enough to have had many years of experience and some context as to what was going on. 

“I was also lucky that, mostly through Twitter, I was able to do some freelance gigs for Quartz, BBC, Sky, InMedia and Post 852 and several others.” 

Grundy said that he sees deficiencies in the current English language media in Hong Kong, dominated by the South China Morning Post, and this was part of the reason for founding HKFP.

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“You often have to wait six hours to two days to understand what's happening in English in Hong Kong… and it is often lacking in context”, says Grundy, who does not speak or read Cantonese or Mandarin.

He also said English-language coverage often does not provide full context to news developments, leaving English readers in the dark. 

Grundy, though, was inspired by the South China Morning Post’s live-blogging last year, when it covered the Occupy Central protests in the city for 79 days. 

“I didn't know where else to turn to with the English-language media in Hong Kong”, he said. “This is my home, so the solution seemed to be to create something new, something truly local. The HKFP has always been a direct response to the press freedom concerns here. 

“We want to be a truly local news source to monitor what is happening. Do these events signal an erosion of Hong Kong civil liberties, or a slow integration into the politics of the region? In either event, we need more robust coverage in English. I think the best we saw was the live blog on SCMP during Occupy. That's the kind of minute-by-minute we're hoping to provide.”

Although English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages, with over 3m speakers, less than 5 per cent use it as their "usual" language, according to the government statistics bureau.

“We thought, okay, it will be less than 10 per cent of the populous reading. But most of our donors, to our surprise, were local people, and they also want to see something in English. 

“On the Chinese side, there has been a proliferation of independent media, from Post K5 News to Next Media to Stand News, but really, if you want to tell the Hong Kong story beyond its borders, it has to be in English.

“Likewise, we recognise that this will be of interest to the Chinese diaspora who want to see what's happening back home. So we'll be targeting communities in Vancouver, San Francisco and other places. That'll also be reflected in how we time our releases to social media."

The HKFP is being set up amid rising concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong. In 2002, it was 18th in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index – this year, it ranked 70th.

In a report titled “Press Freedom Under Siege,” the Hong Kong Journalist Association highlighted the sacking of Kevin Lau, the chief editor of Ming Pao Daily News, who had published articles critical of the Hong Kong government and exposed offshore tax shelters held by high-ranking Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping.

In 2012, Grundy made the news when he attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of Tony Blair (below) at a Hong Kong public forum, calling the former Prime Minister a war criminal for breaking numerous human rights accords and causing the deaths over 100,000 people in the Iraq war.

HKFP reached its funding goal of $150,000 HKD (£12,000) in two days and, over the course of four weeks, has raised an additional $450,000 HKD (£36,500). The plan is for this money to fund the site for its first few months.

It will initially focus on city news and breaking political developments and will provide what an encrypted news portal for whistleblowers.

The site is being run as a not-for-profit and plans to build a mixed funding model over time. Grundy intends to combine online and native ads, a paid membership scheme, crowdfunding, sponsored events and merchandise to make money. News content will always remain free, he said. 

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