Hong Kong police violence curtails the freedom of assembly and the press

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Originally published by HKFP on May 16, 2020

By Leo Lan

A 12-year-old boy who aspired to be a journalist went to cover the protests in Hong Kong on Mother’s Day. He found himself surrounded and scoffed at by police officers in full gear.

Citizens in this city are shocked in disbelief. It’s not only shocking to see a 12-year-old journalist but also his mistreatment by the police.

Recently, as the coronavirus pandemic became less intense in Hong Kong, with no new local cases for about three weeks, protests related to the anti-extradition bill movement, largely calling for democracy, have sporadically revived. 

People staged the protests in various shopping malls and on the streets on Mothers’ Day. Police suppressed the peaceful demonstrations and arrested 230 people, aged between 12 and 65, fined 19 people for breaking the group gathering ban – a measure implemented to contain the spread of the pandemic – and interfered in the work of journalists covering the day’s events.

The brief detention of the 12-year-old boy and another 16-year-old student reporter of Student Depth Media, as well as the violent arrest of Democratic Party legislator Roy Kwong Chun-yu, who was pinned down and taken away by police for “disorderly conduct in a public place,” also sparked fierce public criticism. 

Police have been criticised by many as conducting arbitrary arrests. Those held were all released without charge shortly after.

The recent protests have been on a much smaller scale due to the government’s banon public gatherings of more than four people, which was more recently readjusted to eight, as a means to contain the virus outbreak. 

Small groups of people, especially youths, gathered in various shopping malls and on the street, singing protest songs and chanting slogans reiterating the demands they have been making since the movement started last year. They are largely peaceful and can hardly be accused of causing public security concerns. 

However, as seen in numerous videos and journalists’ reports, police accused protesters of violating the ban and resorted to disproportionate use of force, including excessive and indiscriminate use of pepper spray, not only against demonstrators but also reporters present.

The arrests once again put the city under the spotlight, raising concerns about the former British colony’s diminishing freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.

Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law and Bill of Rights Ordinance ensure the protection of the two freedoms, local law grants police wide latitude to restrict these rights. 

Police approval for assemblies used to be a mere formality in the past. But, since last June, the force has systematically denied all applications on “public security” grounds. The UN Human Rights Committee repeatedly raised concerns about the provisions in the law that were able to restrict freedom of assembly.

Police interference in press freedom in Hong Kong has hit a new low. Reporters and protesters on Sunday reported being physically harassed and verbally insulted by officers. Footage that captured the horrific scenes of police intimidating and insulting protesters and reporters inevitably reminds us of the harsh treatment of mainland Chinese human rights defenders by mainland law enforcement.

This similarity, of police hostility and brutality against dissidents, does indeed signal a worrying trend. Not only have the freedoms of the press, peaceful assembly and expression in the city been eroded but so also has a pillar of “One Country, Two Systems” – the continuation of protection of these basic liberties, among other human rights – been rapidly dismantled.

Hong Kong police hostility towards journalists has intensified after months of unrest and it has been boosted by the complete impunity officers enjoyed over their acts of brutality.

According to the latest survey from the Hong Kong Journalists Association, 95 per cent of 327 responding journalists said press freedom in the city had worsened last year when compared with the year before.

Nearly 93 per cent o respondents had experienced problems with law enforcement such as the use of violence to obstruct news activity. 

Meanwhile, more than 97 per cent said press freedom was being undermined by various incidents during and related to the protests. These included journalists being arrested or obstructed by police while working.

The alarming figures correlate with Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 press freedom index, which ranked Hong Kong at 80 in the world, signalling a drop of seven places from the previous year. The behaviour of the city’s police clearly indicated the government’s declining tolerance of the press to freely report on protests.

The fact that young people, like the 12-year-old boy, want to become journalists clearly and loudly says that Hong Kong people want to know about the truth and witness history in the making. 

If police try to suppress the press and hide the truth, more people will resort to finding it out for themselves. That is exactly what we in mainland China, where many are forced to defend their human rights and report on abuses independently, despite decades of brutal suppression.

Leo Lan is Research and Advocacy Consultant of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)

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