A free expression NGO has criticised the Hong Kong authorities after a journalist was faced with HK$500,000 in legal costs despite being cleared of a public disorder charge.

Marc Progin
Swiss photographer Marc Progin outside Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts on April 28, 2022. File Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Swiss freelance photojournalist Marc Progin was arrested over an incident in Central in October 2019, when Hong Kong was rocked by protests over a controversial extradition bill. He was accused of assisting an attack on a mainland Chinese man who had shouted “We are all Chinese!” by closing the glass door of the Chater House office building. Shortly afterwards, a protester dashed forward and punched the mainland man.

The video of the violent exchange during the lunchtime protest went viral and caused widespread anger online in mainland China.

Progin was charged with “aiding and abetting public disorder” in April 2020, which could have landed him up to a year in jail.

However, he was acquitted in November 2020, a judgement that was upheld in April 2022, with the magistrate’s court ordering that his legal costs be compensated. Yet, on August 8 this year, a High Court judge appointed by the city’s leader denied Progin his reimbursement, following an appeal against the pay-out by the government. Judge Esther Toh said the earlier acquittal was an “error,” leaving the journalist with a bumper legal bill. Progin has 28 days to appeal to the top court.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

NGO: ‘Restore press freedom’

Cédric Alviani, Asia-Pacific bureau director for NGO Reporters Without Borders said the case was “clearly intended to dissuade foreign journalists who would like to cover future protests in the territory.”

Cédric Alviani
Cédric Alviani. File Photo RSF.

In a Wednesday press release, Alviani said: “We urge democracies to build up pressure for Hong Kong to restore full press freedom as enshrined in the territory’s Basic Law.”

Hong Kong has plummeted in international press freedom indices since the onset of the security law. Watchdogs cite the arrest of journalists, raids on newsrooms and the closure of around 10 media outlets including Apple Daily, Stand News and Citizen News. Over 1,000 journalists have lost their jobs, whilst many emigrated. Meanwhile, the city’s government-funded broadcaster RTHK has adopted new editorial guidelines, purged its archives and axed news and satirical shows.

See also: Explainer: Hong Kong’s press freedom under the national security law

In 2022, Chief Executive John Lee has said press freedom was “in the pocket” of Hongkongers but “nobody is above the law.” Lee, whose administration is mulling a “fake news” law, has told the press to “tell a good Hong Kong story.”

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Tom founded Hong Kong Free Press in 2015 and is the editor-in-chief. In addition to editing, he is responsible for managing the newsroom and company - including fundraising, recruitment and overseeing HKFP's web presence and ethical guidelines.

He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He previously led an NGO advocating for domestic worker rights, and has contributed to the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al-Jazeera and others.