The Hong Kong Police Force has rebranded its public relations branch and introduced a 24-hour mechanism to monitor online “smearing” of police work.

The Public Relations Wing – formerly known as the Police Public Relations Branch – held an opening ceremony at the police headquarters in Wan Chai on Monday, local media reported.

Assistant Commissioner Chan Tung (right) and Chief Superintendent of Police Karen Tsang of the Police’s new Public Relations Wing. Photo: Hong Kong Police Force.

Assistant Commissioner Chan Tung, who will oversee the Public Relations Wing, told the press last Friday that misinformation and “fake news” were largely behind the deteriorating relationship between the police and the public.

Consequently, one of the wing’s major responsibilities is to “detect rumours early, and proactively provide clarifications as soon as possible.”

Since the beginning of the year, the police have worked with a tech company to introduce a 24-hour mechanism that monitors heated online debate and words that “smear” the force.

Chief Superintendent of Police Karen Tsang said incidents that occurred in 2019, when the city saw months-long protests and unrest, showed that misinformation could cause “profound and long-lasting devastation.”

“Until now, there are still those who believe that people died in Prince Edward Station, or that a rape occurred in San Uk Ling [detention centre],” Tsang said. “Therefore, we feel that the police has a responsibility and a need to identify false information as quickly as possible and correct it.”

The logo of the Public Relations Wing. Photo: Hong Kong Police Force.

On August 31, 2019, baton-wielding riot police stormed Prince Edward MTR station following hours of protest clashes. Officers were filmed pepper-spraying people in carriages as they drove away reporters and medics. Discrepancies in official records of injuries and the closure of the station fuelled unverified rumours of civilian deaths. The police watchdog largely cleared the Force of wrongdoing but faced criticism for lacking independence and investigatory powers.

Separately, allegations of sexual and violent abuse were made after 53 people who had been arrested were taken to the San Uk Ling Holding Centre on the night of August 11, 2019. Of those detained, 31 were later hospitalised, with six treated for fractured bones, raising concerns about potential abuse at the centre.

‘Respect press freedom’

The new head of the police’s Public Relations Wing said he disagreed that police actions taken against defunct news outlets Apple Daily and Stand News had led to a decline in Hong Kong’s press freedom.

The last edition of Apple Daily. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The police force… is very respectful of both press freedom and the freedom of individuals. Anyone can express their views online, but there is one important point – they cannot break the law,” Chan said.

When asked whether the police would resume meetings with the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chan said they “will not rule out” getting in contact with any organisations, as long as they abide by the law.

Hong Kong’s national security police raided the newsrooms of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily and online outlet Stand News last year, and arrested multiple key figures linked to the two publications under national security or sedition offences.

The International Federation of Journalists said Hong Kong’s fight for media freedom had entered its “end game” in its latest report this year.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.