Not content with new orders limiting the number of legitimate journalists who can cover police operations, the Hong Kong Police Force recently went a step further, deploying public-relations officers as faux reporters to live-stream from popular protest sites.
As these so-called “presenters” explained away arguably illegal stop-and-search actions in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, riot police carrying – in addition to their usual array of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and sponge grenades – state-of-the-art GoPro action cameras filmed the bogus show.
It was just the latest police affront to a free press in a city where bona fide journalism is increasingly under attack as Hong Kong officials and liaison office chief Luo Huining move to muzzle the media, just as they have succeeded in muzzling anti-government protests.
The National Security Law (NSL), implemented on June 30 and aided by severe restrictions on public gatherings which officials maintain are justified by Covid-19, has been the blunt instrument used to quieten the protests.
The NSL, which criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, has also had a chilling effect on the media due its stipulation, in Article 9, that the Hong Kong government “strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organisations, the media and the internet.”
This frighteningly broad diktat has spooked media representatives – not to mention booksellers, academics, schoolteachers and NGOs – across the city. It also appears to have emboldened the powers that be to deny employment visas for foreign journalists and to target particular media bosses and reporters they don’t like.
The outlandish police raid on the offices of the Apple Daily in August and the arrest of that newspaper’s pro-democracy founder, Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, on charges of fraud and collusion with foreign forces was only the most sensational example of the government assault on media freedom.
Throughout the anti-extradition protests of the past year, the police often treated reporters the same way they treated protesters – with excessive zeal and force. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has made numerous complaints about this treatment only to be ignored by Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung and his predecessor, Stephen Lo Wai-chung. Lo retired last November as protests raged across the city and on National Day last week was awarded Hong Kong’s second-highest honour, the Gold Bauhinia Star, for his “distinguished service to the community.”
All told, 94 members of the force found their names on this year’s honours list as a reward for propping up the thoroughly discredited and widely reviled administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during the months of unrest.
Meanwhile, police continued their harassment of journalists over the long Mid-Autumn holiday weekend, rounding up dozens of yellow-vested journos in Causeway Bay and demanding to see their press passes before releasing them. Two “unrecognised” reporters from Lustrous Imprint, an online media outlet formed by a group of secondary-school and university students, were fined HK$2,000 each for violating social-distancing regulations.
The reporters were there covering police operations against “illegal protests” that, in most instances, looked more like unnecessary stop-and-search actions perpetrated against innocent shoppers and pedestrians.
Last week also saw the independence and integrity of Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong), take another hit.
Even before the promulgation of the NSL, RTHK was under fire. In June, the broadcaster was compelled to axe its longstanding satirical show “Headliner” after it was found guilty of “denigration of and insult to the Police” by the Communications Authority.
In April, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah, whose ministry is charged with overseeing RTHK, accused reporter Yvonne Tong of breaching “the one-China principle” when during a teleconference she asked the assistant director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Bruce Aylward, whether the WHO would consider granting membership to Taiwan.
Never mind that the self-ruled island has been an exemplary model of Covid-19 management and at the very least deserves to be granted observer status by the WHO, making Tong’s question – which Aylward pretended not to hear – an eminently sensible one. According to the Chinese leadership, Taiwan is a rogue province that must be shunned by the world until, like Hong Kong, it is reunited with the motherland, and the main job of Hong Kong officials these days is to parrot all pronouncements made in Beijing.
The latest blow to RTHK’s reputation involves assistant programme officer Nabela Qoser. Her fierce questioning of the chief executive and the then-police chief Lo during press conferences at the height of anti-governments protests last year appears to have landed her in hot water and could end up costing her her job.
For reasons left unexplained, an investigation into public complaints against Qoser, once closed, has been reopened and her three-year probation period as a civil servant extended by 120 days, even though Qoser received favourable reports in all of her six appraisals. The whole business smacks of a political hit job on a gutsy reporter whose aggressive line of questioning rubs the government and its allies up the wrong way.
If Qoser loses her job at RTHK – which is currently undergoing a much broader (and trumped-up) governance probe that is clearly aimed at neutering the broadcaster – it will be another big loss for press freedom in Hong Kong. Those losses are mounting up.
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