Press freedom watchdogs have condemned the arrest of freelance photojournalist May James on Sunday, saying that she was wrongly targetted by police enforcing the anti-mask law.
James was surrounded by over a dozen officers and forced to remove her safety mask whilst working on the frontlines in Mong Kok.
Video footage shot by STP Media showed her being confronted and jostled by masked officers who did not appear to be displaying their badges or ID numbers.
James is a member of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and Foreign Correspondents’ Club and is seen producing her credentials in the video.
Multiple officers are seen pushing reporters away from the scene, according to the footage.
During the incident, James – who has covered the ongoing protests for Hong Kong Free Press over the past five months – was wearing a press vest and carrying safety gear visibly marked as “press.”
She was released in the early hours of Monday on bail. Her lawyer Michael Vidler said she had not been charged.
Hong Kong Free Press Editor-in-chief Tom Grundy said police should help enable the work of journalists and ensure their safety, not hinder their work: “Media staff have every right to be on the frontlines and take huge risks in documenting events on the ground. May’s case is yet another example of police confronting media staff over the mask ban despite explicit assurances from Chief Executive Carrie Lam that reporters would be exempt,” he said.
Under the mask ban which was invoked under the 1922 Emergency Regulations Ordinance on October 5, offenders face up to a year in prison for wearing facial coverings at authorised or unauthorised protests if convicted.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club condemned James’s arrest on Monday and said the police were wrong to order her to remove her safety mask: “These masks are used by reporters to protect against tear gas and pepper spray, and by law, anyone who requires the masks for professional use should be exempt from the regulation. Police appeared to use force when removing the masks and interfered with the work of reporters covering the street protests,” the statement read.
The club reiterated its call for an independent investigation into police behaviour.
Both the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association also said the police had obstructed the freedom of the press: “We stress that the media’s cameras capture the truth, and police officers must act responsibly and stop excessive violence… police officers forcibly took off the gas masks of multiple journalists. Some officers said that journalists were not exempt from the mask ban, which was clearly contradictory to what was promised by [Secretary for Security John Lee].”
The police liaised with press freedom watchdogs on Sunday but did not return HKFP’s calls.