The Hong Kong government has cautioned young people against reporting on protests due to the difficulties of “handling complex and evolving” situations, following the detention of two student journalists.

On Sunday, riot police took away two volunteer reporters – a 12-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl of Student Depth Media – who were covering protesters gathering at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Harbour City mall. Both were wearing press vests at the time. The force later said the pair had not been arrested and were released without charge or warning.

Photo: inmediahk.net.

Police on-site called the boy a child labourer and mocked him for his height, according to a Facebook post by Student Depth Media. One officer, who appeared to be angry, was seen being restrained by another in media footage.

The incidents occurred after an unauthorised march from Tsim Sha Tsui to Mong Kok failed to take off amid a heavy police presence. Crowds later shifted into shopping malls across the city in response to online calls to “Sing with you.”

‘Extremely irresponsible’

In a statement issued the next day, a spokesperson for the government urged people under the age of 18 to stay away from and avoid reporting at “high-risk” protest sites.

“It is extremely dangerous for underage persons to conduct news reporting activities at scenes of protests in the capacity of student journalists. One can imagine how difficult it is for a child aged 12 or 13 to handle the complex and ever-changing situation at the scene,” it read.

“We are very worried that there are organisations arranging for young students to work as volunteer reporters. They totally disregard the young students’ safety and are extremely irresponsible.”

Photo: inmediahk.net.

The spokesperson also said young people are “easily influenced by others” into breaking to the law, adding that guardians and schools have a responsibility to ensure children or teenagers do not “participate in protests,” for their personal safety and wellbeing.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in an interview with state-run newspaper Ta Kung Pao, published the same day, that students should be protected from being “poisoned” by “false and biased” information on campuses. She urged the Education Bureau and schools to act as gatekeepers.

Pro-Beijing legislator Priscilla Leung from the Business and Professionals Alliance on Monday told reporters that the government could introduce official accreditation for journalists.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen also said that although under 18-year-olds should avoid attending unauthorised demonstrations, police officers should try to protect those on-site instead of lashing out at them: “If they are doing nothing wrong, they should be treated with a good manner by policemen and policemen should try to protect them, rather than attacking them with violent language.”

Speaking to HKFP in a personal capacity, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) Chris Yeung said that anyone should be able to document demonstrations but that those who claim to be reporters should uphold basic journalistic principles.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairperson Chris Yeung. Photo: inmediahk.net.

“The two students did not breach any law. What the police did was give a bad message, that the pair had done something wrong, which is untrue,” he said.

“What is important is that they know they are reporters and know what reporters should do and should not do. To put it simply, to report on events, say, protests, and not participate in them.”

Press freedom dive

His comments came as the HKJA recorded a plunge in the city’s press freedom levels to record lows amid threats to reporters and tightening restrictions on media activities, according to its latest survey.

The findings revealed that the general public index – used to measure perceptions of press freedom – for last year had plunged by 3.1 points to 41.9 on a scale of 0 to 100 from 2018 – representing the largest drop since the annual survey began in 2013.

Some of the factors cited as influencing the new rating included adequacy of legislative safeguards for journalists’ free access to information, difficulty obtaining information needed for reporting and reporters being targeted by extralegal intimidation or violence.

Photo: inmediahk.net.

Around 65 per cent of the 327 responding journalists said that they had been subject to verbal and physical violence while working. Meanwhile, 95 per cent said press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened compared to a year ago.

The survey was conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute from January 9 to 15. In total, 1,022 Cantonese-speaking residents aged 18 or above were interviewed, while 327 people were sampled from distributed questionnaires to journalists between January 17 and March 27.

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Jennifer Creery

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.