Journalists' associations in Hong Kong on Tuesday hit out at changes to regulations enabling the city's police force to decide who is an accredited journalist.
Amendments to the Hong Kong Police Force General Orders -- which were brought in without consulting with press associations -- will mean that the authorities decide who is and is not a reporter, an open letter from the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) and seven other press associations said.
"[This] fundamentally changes the existing system in Hong Kong," the statement, which was posted to the HKJA's website on Tuesday, said.
"It will be no different to an official accreditation system, which will seriously impede press freedom in Hong Kong, leading the city toward authoritarian rule," the association said.
The statement came after the police wrote to four media associations warning them that press accreditation issued by the HKJA and the Hong Kong Press Photographers' Association would no longer be recognized by the police when deciding who is to be allowed to cover an event.
Instead, only those working for media outlets registered with the Hong Kong government, or "renowned and well-known" non-local outlets will be regarded as accredited, a designation that can protect journalists from police violence and arrest when covering breaking news.
The police claimed that the move followed an "exchange of views" with the media, but the HKJA statement said its requests for meetings with the police had been repeatedly turned down.
"We simply cannot understand the police’s statement that they have heeded our views," the statement said.
Hong Kong was promised continued press freedom under its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and once operated a freewheeling approach to journalists from any media outlet, ranking highly in global indexes of press freedom.
The changes to the police rules will mean that freelance reporters and media outlets not registered with the government are unable to cover events with a police presence without risking being treated as troublesome bystanders.
"The police must not use administrative means to censor the media and in doing so, harm the rights of Hongkongers," the HKJA statement said.
It said the police claim to have discovered "fake reporters" covering events in Hong Kong who "obstructed and attacked" police officers were unfounded, and that no concrete evidence had been offered to support it.
The HKJA said it had issued 99 press passes under a strict vetting process since January 2020, in accordance with its constitution.
It said the police had failed to provide any evidence that the HKJA's vetting and accreditation process was being abused in any way.
HKJA deputy chairman Ronson Chan said the ruling would affect reporters trying to cover front-line news, such as protests, with a strong police presence.
"It means that journalists who have a press pass issued by the HKJA will still not be allowed to carry out front-line reporting assignments," Chan told RFA. "This is a huge obstacle to press freedom."
"The police are effectively slashing the numbers of journalists ... who will be permitted to report from the scene of breaking news stories," he said.
Citizen journalists will largely also be prevented from operating on such assignments.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui said citizen journalists were largely responsible for ensuring that the public got to know about a police raid on Prince Edward MTR station on Aug. 31, 2019.
"The scenes of police beating up Hongkongers on Aug. 31 were made available by citizen journalists," Hui told RFA. "That was pretty important, right -- don't we think that the public had a right to know about that?"
"What right do the police have to abuse their powers by forcing such requirements on online journalists and citizen reporters?" Hui said.
Threat of screening ban
Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA) has told the producers of two documentaries about last year's protest movement that they must add a disclaimer to their films or face a screening ban in the city.
Ying E Chi Cinema, producers of “Taking Back the Legislature" and "Inside the Red Brick Wall" about the storming of Hong Kong's Legislative Council and the police siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said Hong Kong officials had tried to "coerce" the films' directors into making statements against their will.
In a statement on its Facebook page, Ying E Chi said OFNAA had insisted on editing the film to protect the government's official line on the protest movement, and insisted that the films carry unsourced disclaimers that they depicted "criminal actions."
In the case of "Taking Back the Legislature," the disclaimer reads: "This film records the serious incident of the storming of the Legislative Council Complex on 1 July 2019. Some of those depictions or acts may constitute criminal offences under prevailing laws."
A similar disclaimer was required for “Inside the Red Brick Wall," with an additional warning that "some of the contents or commentaries in the film may be unverified or misleading."
Ying E Chi said they were initially contacted about editing changes to the films and the disclaimers around one month after the ruling Chinese Communist Party imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, which includes clauses banning speech that could promote a poor image of the Hong Kong or Chinese authorities.
"We would hate to have the truth buried by the Hong Kong government or to let those in power rewrite history," the company said, urging others to make the story known.
Reported by Tseng Yat-yiu and Gigi Lee for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.