Hong Kong journalism bodies have condemned attacks on reporters over the course of another weekend of clashes.

At around 10pm on Saturday, police fired multiple bursts of pepper spray at journalists outside Pioneer Centre mall on Nathan Road, Mong Kok. Protesters had gathered after police largely thwarted a planned “stress test” of Hong Kong’s airport transportation. Numerous journalists were doused with the chemical including an HKFP reporter who was hit face-on whilst live-streaming the event.

holmes pepper spray september 7 mong kok
Police fired pepper spray at journalists on September 7 in Mong Kok, with one HKFP reporter among those hit. Photo courtesy of Chan Cheuk-fai/Initium.

According to footage and journalists on the scene, Special Tactical Squad officers used the spray without warning or provocation, despite reporters complying with instructions to back off. The HKFP reporter received first aid treatment on the scene and was later taken to the hospital emergency room at around 11:05pm, where a doctor issued a medical certificate noting a “chemical eye injury.”

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Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

As a form of silent protest, many journalists attended the press briefing in full safety gear.

police press conference full gear journalists protest
Photo: Inmediahk.net.

In a joint statement posted shortly after midnight on Sunday, the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association and the Hong Kong Photojournalists’ Association said that several other media workers had been affected – including at least two HK01 photojournalists, one AFP photojournalist, two Ming Pao photojournalists, one Ming Pao reporter, two i-Cable reporters and an RTHK photographer. The watchdog criticised the “indiscriminate” use of force by police.

When asked by HKFP about the incident at a press conference on Monday, Chief Superintendent Tse Chun-chung defended the officers’ actions saying that pepper spray was used to disperse protesters behind the reporters.

holmes pepper spray september 7 mong kok
Photo: Stand News.

“I can say that from the videos online and the reports made by our officers, certain reporters are definitely close to the point where our officers and [they] were rubbing shoulders with each other. And our officers, indeed, from the video I can see, they did ask politely the reporters not to stay close to them and remind them to move away to a certain distance,” he said. “As our officers had to disperse the protester behind the reporters they had to use appropriate force such as pepper spray at that moment we consider it is appropriate. We have no bad [intention] to use pepper spray.”

Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of HKFP, said there were no protesters behind the reporters at the time, only onlookers: “Our reporter was wearing clear credentials and a press vest, was obeying police instructions, and was not obstructing the police operation. HKFP urges the Hong Kong Police Force to facilitate journalists’ work and respect press freedom.”

‘Deteriorating situation’

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) made reference to the incident in a statement on Saturday, condemning the police action as unacceptable and unlawful. The club also reiterated calls for an independent commission of inquiry into the handling of protests since June — one of five key demands made by protesters.

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“The repeated and consistent reports of police violence against journalists covering the protests have become too many for the Hong Kong government and the international community to ignore and seem to be increasing in frequency,” it read. “Given this deteriorating situation, the FCC reiterates its demand that the government follow the advice of numerous prominent Hong Kong organisations, along with civic and political leaders, and establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all forms of violence and intimidation directed at journalists since the start of the protests in June. We urge that such investigations be thorough and transparent.”

The staff association for broadsheet Ming Pao confirmed in a statement that three of its staff members were pepper-sprayed on Saturday, adding that one reporter was pushed to the ground by police in the early hours of Monday. After the incident, the officer said the reporter had fallen “on his own” — an account which was refuted by a photojournalist present at the time, Ming Pao reported.

Yau Ma Tei attack

A reporter at Stand News was also attacked by an unidentified assailant near Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market in the early hours of Saturday, the news outlet said in a statement.

The journalist, who was wearing visible press credentials, was recording a police clearance operation of protesters when a middle-aged man scolding him for filming and punched him to the ground, causing him to bleed from his lips.

Stand News reporter assault Yau Ma Tei extradition protest
Stand News reporter, surnamed Chan, who was assaulted while covering a police clearance operation near Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market. Photo: Stand News.

Media staff also had a narrow escape on Sunday. A video that circulated online appeared to show riot police exiting an MTR station in Causeway Bay and throwing a tear gas grenade without warning. It exploded among a group of journalists and bystanders.

The clearance operation came after a mass march to appeal to the US government to enact legislation to punish those who “suppress” basic freedoms in the city.

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At Monday’s press conference, however, police said the incident was in reaction to protesters using rocks and rubbish bins to attack officers.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced last Wednesday a plan to withdraw the controversial extradition bill, in accordance with protesters’ demands. However, the decision has done little to soothe public anger over the handling of the crisis and alleged police misconduct.

The bill, which would have allowed case-by-case fugitive transfers to China, sparked 14 consecutive weeks of protests which have evolved into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachment and police beavhiour.

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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.