The idea of a free press has been challenged several times by the authorities in Hong Kong since the pro-democracy movement erupted in the region last year.
Hong Kong authorities announced curbs on press freedom with an announcement by the Hong Kong police on Tuesday, September 24, that the credentials of certain news outlets and journalists would no longer be recognized.
According to the new guidelines, journalists from media houses that are not officially recognized by the government will have restricted access to press briefings. This includes outlets that are accredited by local press associations such as the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and Hong Kong Press Photographers Association (HKPPA) representing a large community of journalists in Hong Kong. Only “internationally recognized and renowned” foreign media outlets and news organizations registered with the government will be recognized by the police.
Critics have accused the Hong Kong authorities of trying to create a government licensing system that challenges the autonomy of the press and threatens the media’s role as a watchdog over the activities of the police and the administration.
The HKJA, HKPPA and five other media outlets unanimously declared that they would respond by taking any possible and necessary measures, including applying for a judicial review, if the new policy of restrictions on media was not revoked.
“The amendment allows authorities to decide who are reporters, which fundamentally changes the existing system in Hong Kong. It will be no different to an official accreditation system, which will seriously impede press freedom in Hong Kong, leading the city toward authoritarian rule,” they said.
Individual reporters are now less likely to get protection during protest movements as the fresh guidelines release the police from any obligation to shield members of the media. Moreover, journalists can be prosecuted for attending illegal gatherings or violating social distancing rules.
in a letter to the Hong Kong Correspondents Club on September 22, Police Superintendent Kwok Ka-cheun claimed that the protests “often attract hundreds of reporters to a single hot spot.” He also alleged that “self-proclaimed reporters” participate in agitations and obstruct or assault police.
“This has burdened the law enforcement action of police officers,” Kwok said in the letter, while also adding that police officers would be given the necessary training to assist the media.
Mak Yin-ting, a veteran journalist and former chairperson of the HKJA told the Guardian that by deciding to impose new restrictions the authorities were tightening control on media in Hong Kong.
“It is absurd because by doing so the government, who should be monitored, is taking the power to decide who can be the monitor over them,” Mak said, adding that there were two main objectives behind the decision.
“One, to take the control of defining who is media from professional groups to a government department … The second purpose is to stop the numerous online media and journalists from university and journalism schools from publishing articles.”
Mak also expressed concern that the curbs would end up hurting the freedom of international media – in Hong Kong in particular – as the power would be with the police to decide which outlets were renowned enough to be allowed to carry out their reporting activities.
She also dismissed the police’s claim that the convergence of reporters in high numbers at protest sites justified the suppression of the media.
“This should not be police business. Police business is to mind whether the people there really are obstructing your work. If they are, police have the legal tools already. They should not mind whether there are more reporters than protesters there,” Mak said.
The constraints enforced by the Hong Kong police also cover freelancers and student journalists who will be prohibited from attending non-public events, including press conferences.
On September 23, seven journalism schools in Hong Kong released a joint statement urging the government to remove restrictions on reporting.
“We are concerned that the new policy would amount to giving clear instructions to officers to disperse non-mainstream journalists who have done no wrong and only exercising their right to gather information,” said the statement drafted by the journalism department of Baptist University.
“As part of our education, our students have been covering newsworthy happenings, and they follow the same code of ethics as professionals do by acting fairly and honestly. We cannot accept that they would be barred from covering certain newsworthy events merely because the student or independent media they work for are not registered with the [Information Services Department system],” the statement added.
“We thought of not sending our reporters to the sites, but we believe this is what reporters should do. Compared with the mainstream media, sometimes student journalists can film and get footage with more details during anti-government protests,” said Chan Wai-lok, chief editor of the student newspaper PressCom, adding that covering future protests with restrictions in place would be difficult.
In July, China introduced a controversial national security law in Hong Kong with an immediate aim to curb pro-democracy protests in the region. The Hong Kong police received heavy criticism for allegedly attacking reporters and photographers while trying to control crowds. It also led to fear among news outlets, claiming increased vulnerability to state-backed prosecution against them over simply quoting or photographing independence slogans from protestors.
Tom Grundy, the editor of the English-language Hong Kong Free Press, told the Guardian in an interview on July 3 that he was concerned about the safety of sources amid the crackdown.
“We expect to experience legal and bureaucratic terrorism in an effort to drain our resources, more than arrest or direct censorship – but we’ll see,” said Grundy.
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