Hong Kong’s journalism watchdog has said the government has damaged freedom of expression in what they describe as one of the worst years in the city’s post-colonial history.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) released its 2019 annual report on July 7 under the title “Red line stifles freedoms,” and identified several incidents over the past 12 months indicating the government’s tightening control over the press.

Journalist your mother

The events included the city’s refusal to grant then-Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) Vice-president Victor Mallet a visa renewal, cases of alleged police misconduct against journalists, and a lack of transparency by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration throughout the extradition bill crisis.

“To say the past 12 months have been eventful is an understatement. In a sense, it is one of the worst years for post-1997 Hong Kong,” the association’s statement read. “The HKJA urges the government to reaffirm their commitment to [upholding] freedom of expression and freedom of the press through concrete actions and convincing words. They should not do anything that damages those freedoms as they have done so in the past 12 months on a list of matters including the FCC saga.”

HKJA made five recommendations to the government, which included: withdrawing its controversial extradition bill; withholding Article 23 legislation; improving its information dissemination systems; enacting a freedom of information law and an archives law, and establishing an independent investigation into alleged police misconduct.

”List of HKJA recommendations – Click to view“

1. Withdraw the fugitive law amendment bill.

2. The way the Government fast-tracked the fugitive law amendment does not augur well for the enactment of a law on Basic Law Article 23, which has been shelved since 2003. There will be fears that the government will bulldoze the anti-subversive law as they are doing with the extradition bill. In light of the growing social divisiveness, the government should not table Article 23 legislation without society consensus.

3. The government should speed up the enactment of a freedom of information law and an archives law that are effective in enhancing public access to information and archives.

4. The government should further improve the dissemination of information and press arrangements to facilitate the work of journalists.

5. The government should set up an independent investigation committee to probe the police’s alleged violence or harassment of reporters and other media personnel covering extradition bill protests on June 10 and June 12. The investigation should also examine whether [that] violence and abuse of power [involved] high-level instructions.

The association filed a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Council last month claiming police caused bodily harm to 26 journalists during several days of protests against the government’s proposed extradition law. The bill, which would enable the city to handle fugitive transfer requests to jurisdictions where there are no prior agreements including China, was suspended on June 15 but not axed.

police press conference
Police press conference on June 13.

The protests have since morphed into a wider display of discontent over dwindling freedoms, alleged police misconduct related to the use of crowd control measures, the use of the term “riot” to describe protests on June 12, and calls for universal suffrage, among other demands.

The city’s embattled leader has repeatedly described lawful free expression as integral to a “free, open and pluralistic society.”

HKJA’s report includes articles from eight journalists: HKJA Chairperson Chris Yeung of CitizenNews, an anonymous contributor, Ming Pao columnist Allan Au Ka-lun, Lam Yin-pong of Stand News, HKJA Vice-Chairperson Shirley Yam, Alvin Lum of South China Morning Post, Ching Cheong of The Straits Times and Grace Kong Lai-fan, all of whom expressed concern about threats to press freedom, journalists’ safety, self-censorship, and changing business models.

Silent rally

The association is planning a silent rally on Sunday, alongside six other media groups. It said that police have driven reporters away from protest scenes: “They were pushed, insulted by police officers, or even hit by their batons and bean bag shots. The personal safety of journalists are being threatened, let alone being able to exercise their role as the fourth estate and monitoring the exercise of public power by the police,” it said in a statement.

“Expressing our anger with silence.” Photo: HKJA.

The “Stop Police Violence, Defend Press Freedom” rally will gather at 10.30am at Harcourt Garden in Admiralty and end at the Wanchai Police Headquarters. They will call upon Lam to uphold press freedom and will urge police to better facilitate the work of the press.

The FCC also voiced its support for the rally on Friday in a statement on Friday: “As this silent protest occurs, the FCC reiterates its call for Hong Kong authorities to allow unfettered press access to those covering the demonstrations and urges an independent investigation of allegations made by journalists and other witnesses of the use of force by police,” it said.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.