The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) has expressed “extreme concern” over the fining of reporters covering a shopping mall protest.

Police repeatedly searched and fined people wearing press vests on Wednesday as dozens gathered in Yuen Long’s YOHO Mall to mark one year since a violent mob attack at the MTR station. The force issued fixed penalties of HK$2,000 to those who could not present valid HKJA accreditation on the basis of allegedly breaching an anti-coronavirus public gathering ban on groups of more than four people.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

People gathering for the purposes of work are exempted from the group restriction under the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation, implemented in March.

The Association said as of 3.30 pm on Wednesday, it had received 17 reports about the Yuen Long dispersal operation. Police reportedly fined one journalist after they denied they were registered with the government Information Services Department. Several student reporters also received penalties for not being employed by media organisations.

Hong Kong does not have an official press accreditation system – HKJA membership and registration with the Information Services Department is voluntary.

“[The government regulation] shows that police have no power to arbitrarily define or screen journalists. There is no legal basis for issuing fixed penalty tickets for violating the group gathering ban to those carrying out reporting. The HKJA urges the force to stop abusing its power and interfering with journalists’ work,” its statement on Thursday read.

The force previously accused civilians of dressing up as reporters in order to take part in prohibited public gatherings. It claimed more than one-third of the 150 people intercepted while wearing press vests were not reporting or employed by media organisations.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Amid the pandemic, those who use their reflective vests as disguises and participate in prohibited gatherings are disregarding public health and obstructing police operations. This has also increased the risk of transmission of diseases. The police severely condemn such acts,” a spokesperson said on Wednesday.

During the clearance, a Police Public Relations Branch (PPRB) officer told an HKFP reporter that the force did not intend to prevent journalists from reporting but from “gathering” instead: “Of course you have the freedom to report but don’t violate the gathering restrictions.”

According to official figures, police issued fixed penalty tickets to 112 males and 47 females for allegedly violating the public gathering restriction that night.

Relations between police and frontline reporters have deteriorated over the past year, with the HKJA repeatedly condemning alleged mistreatment of journalists at pro-democracy demonstrations. The media body and top police representatives have held discussions in an attempt to resolve the issue.

Additional reporting: Rachel Wong

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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.