Hong Kong media groups on Tuesday hit back at a police decision to stop recognising the credentials of some local journalists, following months of tension between officers and the press during last year’s citywide protests.

Only government-registered outlets and “internationally known” foreign media would be recognised while accreditation from press associations such as the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) would no longer be accepted, the force said.

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Photo: Studio Incendo.

Membership cards from the HKJA and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association were previously considered to be acceptable credentials.

Police have long complained of “fake journalists” allegedly covering or taking part in protests. Reporters have also accused officers of harassment or obstruction.

In a letter to four local journalist groups on Tuesday, Chief Superintendent Kenneth Kwok of the Police Public Relations Branch said changes would be made to Police General Orders. It currently defines media representatives as reporters, photographers and television crews who carry proof of identity from newspapers, agencies, television or radio stations.

Under the new definition, police will only recognise journalists from media organisations registered with the government news and media information system or working for prominent foreign news outlets.

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Reporters in Yuen Long’s Yoho mall on July 19, 2020. Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

“After the amendment, the definition of ‘media representatives’ under the Police General Orders will be more concise and clearer, allowing frontline personnel to identify media representatives more efficiently and swiftly,” Kwok’s letter read.

Kwok said that although officers wanted to assist with “normal coverage” of large-scale public processions, they had faced increased challenges in enforcing the law. He said police had spotted some people claiming to be journalists mixed in with crowds at protests: “[They] allegedly obstructed police work, and even assaulted police officers.”

Kwok said police had always respected press freedom and journalists’ right to report, adding that press unions could continue to share their opinions to help improve arrangements.

The new policy came months after police chief Chris Tang admitted the press had experienced “undesirable treatment” after some officers ordered journalists to kneel, stop filming and fired pepper spray at them during a demonstration in May.

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Members of the press wear protest gear at a police press conference as a form of protest. Photo: Inmediahk.net, via CC 2.0.

Local press unions have also accused police of obstructing reporters at protests and condemned the use of what they deemed to be an excessive and unnecessary level of force.

In a joint statement issued, eight Hong Kong media unions – including the HKJA – demanded the new policy be scrapped. If not, they would respond with “necessary measures.”

“Police unilaterally made such a major amendment without discussion and consultation, destroying a relationship that was built over many years,” it read.

HKJA chairman Chris Yeung told HKFP the Association was surprised at the policy change. He said police had not consulted them beforehand, and the changes would “seriously affect” trust and cooperation between media groups and authorities.

“It is quite regrettable. [The existing arrangement] was worked out among police, the government and us years ago. It was an important part of our relationship,” Yeung said in a telephone interview.

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A person in press vest showing a fixed penalty ticket from police for allegedly breaching the Covid-19 gathering restrictions. Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

Police previously fined people in press vests on suspicion of breaching coronavirus public gathering restrictions at demonstrations after they failed to present valid HKJA accreditation.

Yeung said he did not understand why HKJA press cards were no longer recognised, since the Association had not received related any complaints. He said the new policy would limit the work of freelance journalists and student media and “seriously restrict” media coverage of public events.

“Quite a lot of important footage did not come from government-registered media organisations. The most recent example was the 12-year-old girl arrested by police. It was by a student media outlet, which got used by many mainstream outlets,” he said, referring to an HKUST Radio News clip on September 6 of police subduing a teenage girl at a demonstration.

Hong Kong does not have an official press accreditation system, as registration with the Information Services Department is voluntary.

Last October, Chief Executive Carrie Lam denied rumours that her administration was considering introducing a system of centralised registration for journalists.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.