As of this week, add one more item to the list of qualities sorely lacking in the Hong Kong Police Force: a sense of irony.

What could be more ironic than a group of masked policemen arrayed in head-to-foot protective riot gear demanding that a credentialed frontline journalist remove her own mask when the threat of police-deployed tear gas and pepper spray is always present in Hong Kong’s streets these days?

Photographer May James accosted by police on Sunday. Photo: STP Media screenshot.

But irony quickly turned to outrage when this journalist – freelance photographer May James, who has contributed more than 2,400 photographs to HKFP during the past five months of Hong Kong’s ongoing anti-government protests – was arrested and detained overnight for allegedly failing to produce proof of her identity in a timely manner.

She was later released on bail without charge, but the outrage remains.

James was not the only member of the media confronted by police last Sunday amid the chaos in Mong Kok. An RTHK video journalist and an Apple Daily reporter also described being forcibly unmasked by officers, although Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu had assured media representatives that frontline journalists were exempt from the recently implemented anti-mask law.

And these were just the latest incidents in what has become not only an increasingly aggressive police campaign against protesters but also an assault on the media whose job it is to chronicle this tumultuous chapter in Hong Kong history.

Since the enfeebled administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ceded management and control of Hong Kong to the police this past summer, officers have made a habit of subjecting reporters to a series of hindrances and humiliations. Verbal abuse is commonplace, as is pushing, shoving and blocking of reporters trying to record events – some of which involve highly questionable police conduct – unfolding on the ground.

Police have also deliberately shone high-intensity lights on reporters, rendering their cameras useless, and at times simply barred them from places where important news was clearly happening.

It was just such a ban on the reporting of violent clashes between police and protesters on August 31 at Prince Edward MTR station that led to wild rumours, still circulating today, that three protesters were killed by police that night and their deaths subsequently covered up by the force.

Reporters have been kicked, slapped and beaten by police. They have been hit with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannon jets, rubber bullets, sponge grenades and bean bag rounds.

In the worst case, an Indonesian journalist appears to have lost an eye to a rubber bullet.

Every journalists’ group in the city, foreign and domestic, has expressed anger and objection over police aggression and brutality. This week freelance journalist Amy Ip gave voice to that anger at a police press conference, denouncing the force for its mistreatment of reporters and shining a torchlight in the eyes of the officers present as a pointed reminder of that particular abhorrent police practice.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association has gone so far as to file a judicial review against the commissioner of police and secretary for justice, accusing the force of unwarranted “obstructive tactics” and “unnecessary and excessive force” against the media.

Amy Ip protesting at a police press conference. Photo: Stand News.

Meanwhile, not a single police officer has been reprimanded or disciplined for unprofessional conduct during the protests. At this point, the carte blanche on aggression granted to the force by the feckless Lam administration amounts to a clear and present danger to freedom of the press – a core Hong Kong value that makes us so commendably different from the mainland and many other places.

Since the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, Hong Kong has been obliged to suffer a succession of Beijing-vetted Chief Executives noted primarily for their incompetence. But at the same time we have benefited from exposure of that ineptitude by media outlets stubbornly devoted to their independence and committed to the journalistic principles of truth, fairness and accuracy.

Now that, too, is under serious threat.

For years self-censorship has been an issue, as Hong Kong media moguls worry about losing advertising revenue tied to commercial interests currying favour with Beijing. And when in 2015 mainland internet behemoth Alibaba purchased Hong Kong’s most read and decorated English-language publication, the South China Morning Post, there went any pretence of editorial independence at what was once a valuable source of news and opinion.

The co-opting of mainstream Hong Kong media such as the SCMP helps to explain the rise of alternative online outlets including, among others, the crowd-funded HKFP.

Riot police firing pepper spray at Initium Media photographer Lam Chun-tung, Causeway Bay, September 29, 2019. Photo: Nasha Chan/Stand News.

But the Hong Kong government, via its ill-chosen police proxy of the last five months, has shown nothing but contempt and animosity for journalists exercising their constitutionally granted rights under the Basic Law.

When the police treat Hong Kong’s free media as the enemy, they are doing the same to the 7.4 million people who live in this city.

Yes, the protests have turned ugly and violent, targeting police officers with bricks, petrol bombs and, in one case, a remote-controlled explosive device.

It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting and it’s dangerous.

But that’s no excuse for beating up the press.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.