Hong Kong police have blamed “fake news and fake information” for public distrust of the force, as journalism associations accused officers of targeting reporters at protests.

Police chief Chris Tang announced on Monday the release of a report detailing last year’s law and order situation. The summary focused on ongoing pro-democracy protests and other crime statistics.

Reporters protest at the police press briefing. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

In a statement, police said the force aims to proactively clarify and rebut false information in order to increase transparency: “… Police will actively establish [a] partnership with the media and continue to maintain good communication with a view to enhancing mutual understanding and respect,” it read.

The force reported a 9.2 per cent increase in crime from 54,225 in 2018 to 59,225 cases in 2019 “arising from radical protests.” It also blamed large-scale unrest as causing a thinning out of police resources for tackling other crimes.

Mass protests erupted last June over a now-axed proposal to allow fugitives transfers to mainland China. The movement has morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour and Beijing’s encroachment, alongside calls for democratic reform.

‘Salt on the wounds’

The Hong Kong Journalists Association published an open letter from Chairperson Chris Yeung, saying that journalists did not believe the sincerity of Tang’s pledge to improve police-media relations.

“Many police officers have poured salt on the wounds. They treated reporters as their enemies and obstructed and interfered with their reporters. It has become a new norm. It is deeply disappointing and regrettable,” Yeung wrote.

Protest at Tuen Mun Park. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The letter made reference to a protest in Tuen Mun on February 23 when an RTHK reporter, identified as the press, was surrounded by 10 police officers and searched.

Yeung also recounted instances of journalists being pepper-sprayed and being told to stop taking photos or videos by the police: “Such acts by police officers were rude and uncivilised, seriously blocking the reporting of reporters,” he wrote.

“Journalists will not be able to tell the public the whole truth if their reporting is being obstructed and interfered. [The] public’s right to know will be undermined, making more room for all kinds of speculation and hearsay,” he added.

Riot police deploying pepper spray at photojournalist on September 29, 2019. File photo: Nasha Chan/Stand News.

Responding to a police-protester standoff in Mong Kok last Saturday evening, which resulted in at least 115 arrests, the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association (HKPPA) released a statement condemning officers for “intentionally removing” reporters’ respirator filters and pepper-spraying them.

“Reporters were cooperative with police instructions,” it read. “But some officers were nonetheless emotional and attacked maliciously, which was done with the intention to harm reporters not disperse crowds.”

The statement added that frontline police have repeatedly insulted reporters using expletives.

The HKPPA urged the Hong Kong Security Bureau to set up an independent commission of inquiry into police misconduct.

Jimmy Lai.

Responding to the arrest of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai last Friday, on suspicion of taking part in illegal assembly last year and intimidating a reporter in 2017, watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) called the arrest arbitrary.

RSF East Asia bureau Director Cédric Alviani said the incident was intended to humiliate Lai: “His arrest is designed to smear him and his media group, which provided extensive coverage of last year’s pro-democracy protests,” Alviani said.

The organisation’s annual World Press Freedom Index ranked Hong Kong 73 out of 180 countries for press freedom last year, marking a drop of three places from the year before. The city ranked 18 in 2002.

Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.