Journalist issues in Hong Kong

Local reporter argues with police during street demonstrations, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, October 1st 2020. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

Since the protests began, Hong Kong’s press freedom reputation has faced a steady decline when compared to its own international standards.

Last year history was made in Hong Kong. Waves of pro-democracy protests ruptured the city for seven consecutive months, causing clashes between demonstrators and police across the city.

Press covering events during the height of last year’s demonstration in Central, Hong Kong, November 2019. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

But as the mass demonstrations petered out in late 2019, the global pandemic began shortly after. Then came the implementation of the National Security Law, and the movement lost its momentum, for now.

But with every action, there is a reaction. And the fallout of the protests has taken shape this year.

One issue of the fallout is the status of Hong Kong’s press freedom. Since the protests began, the city’s press reputation has faced a steady decline when compared to its own international standards.

Reporting in Hong Kong

I’m going to write in the first-person for a minute because I’ve been reporting on Hong Kong’s unrest since mid-2019.

Comparing Hong Kong’s press issues with other countries, the city is still a place where the media can report. It’s the decline of what Hong Kong had been accustomed to, that is now the problem. The worry is that one day, the press freedom will be the same as that in Mainland China: state-controlled, with high levels of censorship and limited freedom.

China currently ranks #177 out of #180 in the Press Freedom Index of 2020.

But as of now, Hong Kong isn’t the same as China, nor is it North Korea or Belarus. Journalists can still report here in an open capacity, to the large extent.

Police lead back line of press during street protests in Jordan, Kowloon, Hong Kong, 6th September 2020. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

Press casualties

The press issues began to come to light during the height of last year’s protests. With regular demonstrations often leading to clashes, and with many reporters on the ground, the risk of casualties increased.

The Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) was criticised for using tear gas and rubber bullets recklessly, often escalating a protest unnecessarily. Demonstrators were criticised for their use of petrol bombs and being sensitive to those in support of the authorities and Beijing.

No incident was deemed more controversial than that which involved Indonesian journalist Veby Mega Indah, who was blinded in her right eye by a stray rubber bullet fired from a Hong Kong police officer.

Several reporters were evidently injured in the fracas of clashes, deriving from protests that were poorly controlled and escalated by the authorities. According to the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA), they have received more than 50 complaints made by journalists, with 47 hurt by police actions.

Press run as tear gas fired during street protests against the National Security Law announcement in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, May 2020. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

Border refusals and visa rejections

Away from the action on the streets, several professionals appear to have been scrutinised for reporting in Hong Kong.

Michael Yon, an independent correspondent from the US, was one who was refused re-entry into Hong Kong in early 2020. He had documented events from the frontline for six months in 2019.

Furthermore, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, was turned away after arriving from New York in January this year. Back in 2018, Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet was infamously denied entry on a visitor visa in November of that year.

Some of these names have previously expressed views against the governance of Hong Kong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It suggests political disagreement is increasingly not being tolerated in the city.

Inside the city, the Irish journalist Aaron McNicholas, was recently rejected a work visa with the online news outlet Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP). McNicholas had been in Hong Kong since 2014 had previously worked for Bloomberg but no reason was given for the rejection of his new visa application.

Police on the ground during a memorial demonstration in Mongkok, Hong Kong, 31st August 2020. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

Tensions with police

With international borders currently closed, foreign reporters who entered and swarmed the city last year have been unable to come return due to the on-going pandemic. This has given space to more local media reporting on the frontline, and a rise in online media and student journalism.

As all reporters have evidently attempted to ride the coattails of the movement, there have been concerns over some local reporters’ objectivity when covering events on the ground. The police have criticised some reporters as being ‘fake’ and even judged them to be former pro-democracy protesters.

Some local journalists have accused the police of brutality and others have claimed officers have told them to stop reporting.

These incidents have led to arguments and scuffles between both.

Press on the ground as police detains a protester during street demonstrations, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong 1st October 2020. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

National Security Law

The National Security Law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted. Non-Hong Kong residents who violate the law, in the city or overseas, can be prosecuted.

Critics claim the law further limits Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The biggest issue the media has with the National Security Law is its wide interpretation. Potentially, any criticism of Hong Kong and China can become a violation of the rule, and lead to arrest. This has led to a general feeling the law has created a ‘standing on eggshells’ situation.

With the media’s job to hold those in power to account, there is a concern about what can be said, reported or published.

So much so, journalists have switched to more secure messaging apps to communicate, whilst some key sources have gone quiet. Others who may have been willing to speak to the media are now requesting anonymity.

New rules for accredited media

In September, the Hong Kong police announced new rules under their Police General Order, restricting unaccredited media.

The force believes there are too many reporters who are not “media representatives.” Authorities insisted are not preventing unregistered reporters attend events, but they will not be assisted or kept in vantage points as registered media.

Local media must be registered with the Government’s media system, whilst foreign media must be “non-local and well-known.”

The biggest shock was not recognising the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) who were founded in 1998. They assist hundreds of registered journalists in the city and even provide press identification.

Foreign media

Foreign media on the ground have largely been unaffected when it comes to documenting protests. Although journalists are leaving the city – including The New York Times relocating staff to Seoul – incidents during protests this year, have been minimal.

In my own experience, police have been polite and reasonable in the main, and have allowed reporters to continue their work But that doesn’t necessarily mean that can be said for all foreign correspondents, nor that will change in the future, amid rising tensions with the U.S and China, that ultimately affects Hong Kong.

Press and police stand by police cordon lines during demonstrations in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 1st October 2020. Photo: ©Tommy Walker

Changes to approach during protests in 2020

This year authorities have used controlled measures to deescalate protests. Speculation has risen over the reasons for this, including the appointment of a new police chief, Chris Tang. The visual scenes of clashes taint the city’s image, so quieter reactions prevent less an outcry in the media. The contrary argument is mass demonstrations have been few, so an aggressive pushback has not been required by the force.

Hong Kong is deemed as ‘Asia’s World City’ and is heavily reliant on international trade and tourism, with its image imperative for the city to continue its financial successes. The government is desperate to restore calm within the city, but with those methods arguably being instructed and adapted from the political system in Mainland China, it will not come without criticism. Hong Kong’s press scene is certainly changing, but the main concern is what that scene will ultimately become.