Since June, clashes between police and protesters over the now-withdrawn extradition bill have escalated. Frontline reporters have been facing obstruction and interference by the police in their reporting work. The use of force, violence, verbal abuses and humiliation by police turned from bad to worse. We have issued numerous public statements, made countless calls to Chief Executive Carrie Lam and you for an explanation of the relevant policy/policies and problems in the process of execution regarding specific cases and the problems in general. Over the past eight months, the Government and you have not taken our voices seriously to try to understand the hostilities and threats we are facing. Nor the Government and you have restrained the behaviours of frontline officers. We feel like talking into the air. The situation has not improved. Worse, it is getting worse.
Commissioner and senior government officials have repeatedly emphasised they respect the media as the fourth power. The Hong Kong SAR Government is obliged under the Basic Law to govern in accordance with the law – and safeguard freedom of the press. Under the Police General Orders, police should “facilitate the work of the news media as much as possible and accord media representatives consideration and courtesy,” and “not block camera lenses.” That a lot of police officers have not acted in accordance with the Police General Orders is deeply regrettable.
Freedom to report is a significant part of press freedom. Journalists will not be able to tell the public the whole truth if their reporting is being obstructed and interfered. Public’s right to know will be undermined, making more room for all kinds of speculation and hearsay. That cannot be good to society.
Due to the outbreak of coronavirus, the number of people who took part in demonstrations has drastically decreased. Clashes between police and protesters were less violent. The overall environment of protest areas was less tense than before. But anti-riot police officers still kept targeting reporters at the scene. Some sprayed pepper spray directly at reporters and their lenses. That has become a norm.
The latest case occurred in the conflict between police and civilians on February 29. Furthermore, police have also conducted checks on the identification cards and the bags of reporters more frequently recently. On February 23, a group of residents in Tuen Mun gathered. A RTHK reporter, who wore a “PRESS” vest and carried a press card, was taking video of police’s search of other reporters. The reporter was asked by a police officer to show identification. The reporter was told filming of police’s checks of identity cards hinged upon the issue of privacy. The bag of the reporter was being searched thoroughly, one item after another. During the search, the reporter was surrounded by more than 10 officers. Around the same area, many reporters were also being stopped and searched by police. On another occasion, police officers sprayed pepper spray at a journalist while he was already moving away from them as requested. Other journalists who were taking video were also hit. An officer also demanded journalists to stop taking video. Such acts by police officers were rude and uncivilised, seriously blocking the reporting of reporters.
Hong Kong is a society with rule of law. Police, as a law-enforcement department, must abide by law. We hope police can clarify the questions below:
1. Under the police’s official website, there are two categories of persons under the section “Stopping & Questioning.” They are: “Every police officer has the power to question any person about a crime or offence” and “A police officer has a general power to stop and question any person behaving suspiciously. Whilst doing so he may demand proof of identity, conduct computerised enquiries and search for weapons or drugs.” Under the section “Searching”, it says “If a police officer finds any person whom he reasonably suspects of having committed or of being about to commit or of intending to commit any offence, he can search him/her for anything that is likely to be of value to the investigation of any offence that the person has committed, or is reasonably suspected of having committed or of being about to commit or of intending to commit.”
We would like to ask reporters, who were being searched while conducting reporting and have clear identification, fall under which category?
2. Under Police General Orders, a computer operator should request reasons for search from a police officer. What reason/s were given when a police officer conducted a search among reporters? Is that because he or she is a “reporter” and that became the reason for a search? Police officers have often cited “reasonable doubts” to justify a search. On what legal, operational or criminal basis the “reasonable doubts” were made? Please give examples. On a lot of occasions, the whole group of reporters were being searched. Were they all the subjects of “reasonable doubts”? Is that reasonable?
3. Basically, all reporters at the protest sites wore identifiable vests, carried press cards, with many having the names of their media organisations clearly identified. Why were they not sufficiently identifiable? What more do the police want?
4. On several search occasions, police officers have demanded reporters to stop taking videos, citing privacy protection reasons. On what justifications? Reporters taking videos of the search operation of police and of the identity cards of the persons being searched are two separate matters. Based on previous cases, the privacy of persons being searched have been fully protected so long as the police officers did not show their identity cards in front of the cameras or speak loudly their personal data out.
Please provide the legal basis of the police ban on reporters taking videos and pictures in public places.
5. On many occasions in recent months, reporters were ordered by police officers to leave the scene or move away from them. Reporters had done so. But frontline anti-riot officers still sprayed pepper spray at them. Why? Was such use of pepper spray in line with the principle of use of force stipulated under the Police General Orders and relevant procedures?
Mr Commissioner had said at a media gathering in November relations between the police and the people and the media had been damaged since the anti-extradition bill protest. You had expressed a wish to strengthen communication to repair the damages. Four months on, we do not feel the police have the will and sincerity to do so. Many police officers have poured salt on the wounds. They treated reporters as their enemies and obstructed and interfered with their reporters. It has become a new norm. It is deeply disappointing and regrettable.
Please stop treating reporters as enemies. Please stop obstructing the reporting of reporters.
Hong Kong Journalists Association
Mrs. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Chief Executive, HKSAR
Mr. Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, Chief Secretary for Administration, HKSAR
Dr Anthony Francis NEOH, Chairman, Independent Police Complaints Council