Hong Kong journalists carry on through ‘one of the worst years’

At a July 14 press-freedom rally, a journalist holds an image displaying a clash between police and news media in Hong Kong. Photo by Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

On June 12, Chong Man-lung, a contract driver, arrived at Hong Kong’s government complex ferrying a reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong. That day, tens of thousands of people were protesting a government bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China to stand trial. Chong stepped out of the car to smoke a cigarette. He was wearing a reflective vest and standing far away from protesters when a tear-gas canister landed near him.

As he turned to run, another device exploded by his feet. After a projectile reportedly hit Chong in the head, he lost consciousness. He was taken to a hospital and held for several days, then released. In an interview, he tells CJR he felt he was actively targeted by police.

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A video from the same day shows a European photojournalist shouting at several riot officers, accusing them of targeting members of the press. One police officer then appears to reload his gun and aims it at the photojournalist, though he did not fire. The video went viral. The photojournalist later told France 24 that he had seen tear gas landing about a meter from the journalists, so he “started shouting to distract” the police. (France 24 provided anonymity to the photojournalist, citing his desire “to avoid further public scrutiny.”) According to figures from that day, police fired 150 rounds of tear gas, several rounds of rubber bullets, and 20 beanbag rounds to quell the protest.

On July 14, clashes broke out again, this time in Shatin, a suburb. Chan Ho-wai, a Commercial Radio journalist, said he was filming police wielding batons at a couple pressed against a wall when other officers spotted him and shouted, “There’s a journalist! He’s filming.” Officers then tried to block the view with shields, according to Chan

Violence against journalists by the police during protests in Hong Kong is becoming a grim feature of life there. The Hong Kong Journalists Association reported more than two-dozen accounts of police abuse against journalists to the Independent Police Complaints Council on June 17. Journalists, according to the HKJA, were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and beaten with batons. Amnesty International, which reviewed footage of police actions, reported “aggressive tactics used by police to obstruct journalists on site.” Those actions and others, according to Amnesty, posed “a serious risk of severe injury, or even death, to protesters,” and violated international laws and standards. A fund established by the journalists’ association to help members of the press sue anybody who had violently obstructed their work has already raised over HK$2.5 million, or roughly $320,000.

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“Before, the police would try to block us from taking a photo,” Damon Pang, a journalist for RTHK, says. “But now they will actually storm at us and attack us.” In response to a request for comment, police referred a reporter to a July 14 statement that professed respect for journalists and their work.

Hong Kong police were alleged to have mistreated journalists before, during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement.” But the extensive use of tear gas and pepper spray in June, and complaints by journalists that they were chased after and targeted, suggest police actions toward journalists during the recent protests have escalated.

Since the first clash with the police in June, the thousands of demonstrators who marched through the city’s streets, as well as pro-democracy lawmakers, have demanded that the government establish an independent inquiry into the force police had used a few days before. The government, led by Carrie Lam, has insisted that the current investigation mechanism is adequate. Demonstrators, however, are concerned that an internal review by the police can never be fully independent. A day after the clashes, journalists attended a press conference at the police headquarters clad in helmets, gas masks, and reflective vests like the one Chong had worn, in silent protest. Police chief Stephen Lo said he “felt sorry” if journalists believed they were “treated impolitely.”

 

The police were definitely wrong. But they weren’t afraid. Why?

 

A STRAINED RELATIONSHIP WITH POLICE is just one of many problems facing journalists in Hong Kong; there’s also self-censorship, threats of laws to limit speech, and over-concentration of media ownership in pro-Beijing hands. 

Hong Kong dropped three places in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, where it currently ranks 73 out of 180. Add to this perilous mix a few more high-profile pressures: the government’s refusal to withdraw the extradition bill, which will have a chilling effect on speech if passed, and the expulsion of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet after he hosted Chan Ho-tin, the convener of a now-banned independence party, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. In a recently released annual report, the journalists association declared the past year “one of the worst years for post-1997 Hong Kong,” when control of the territory was passed by the United Kingdom to China.

Some police perceive journalists as sympathetic to the protesters, Ronson Chan, a reporter for Stand News, tells CJR. (Disclosure: I previously worked for Stand News.) In 2017, seven police officers were convicted of assault after beating a protester during the Umbrella Movement, an incident captured by a local news outlet. In 2018, retired superintendent Frankly Chu was sentenced to three months in prison for hitting a passerby with his baton during the 2014 protests. That act was also caught on camera. In the early morning of June 27, police prevented journalists from interviewing Chief Superintendent Rupert Dover, who along with other commanders at the scene were alleged by Lo to have ordered the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on June 12.

Officers at the scene of an incident should “facilitate the work of the news media as much as possible and accord media representatives consideration and courtesy,” according to police guidelines. Instead, journalists reported being verbally abused by the police and reprimanded for standing in the way.

 “The police were definitely wrong. But they weren’t afraid,” Chan says. “Why? They knew there won’t be any consequences.”

On Sunday, several hundred journalists and colleagues gathered for a silent march to police headquarters. Among the marchers was Ava Chan, whose left leg was covered by a bandage. She had fallen the day earlier at a protest that had turned violent, she said, and an officer had kicked her four times, leaving bruises and swelling. That he knew she was a reporter made no difference.

Allan Au, a former TV journalist who now teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says journalists’ cameras will remain pointed at police. It is the job of a journalist, Au says. “We represent the watchful eyes of the citizens.”

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Suzanne Sataline contributed reporting to this story.

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Clarence Leong is a journalist from Hong Kong. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and Hong Kong Free Press.