Police in Hong Kong on Friday hauled four student leaders of the 79-day Occupy Central pro-democracy movement in for questioning following their earlier arrest on public order charges, as a writers' group issued a report charting a worsening climate for freedom of the press in the territory.
Agnes Chow, Derek Lam and Oscar Lai from the academic activist group Scholarism arrived at police headquarters in the semi-autonomous Chinese city to the sound of pro-democracy slogans chanted by supporters holding aloft yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the Umbrella Movement for fully democratic elections in the former British colony.
The three were arrested last month on suspicion of inciting, organizing and participating in illegal assemblies, but were later released unconditionally after refusing police bail.
Later on Friday, protest leader and Scholarism convenor Joshua Wong also arrived for questioning, also refused to answer police questions and was released unconditionally along with the others.
No charges were brought against the four.
Wong, who flashed a defiant victory sign as he went into the building, said the Umbrella Movement isn't over.
"[Further arrests] would just motivate more of the secondary school or university students to come out on the streets and join the action," he told reporters at the scene.
Wong said he had refused to answer police questions, and that police lacked enough evidence to charge him, despite showing him video clips of his involvement in the protest movement that blocked key highways and intersections in Hong Kong from late September.
"I am still confident and optimistic for further action and more of the Umbrella Movement, and continue to fight for universal suffrage," said Wong, who was arrested on the last day of the protest.
‘A little nervous’
Chow said she was "a little nervous" after receiving her summons. "But I believe that what I am doing is worthwhile," she said before entering the police station. "There is nothing wrong with fighting for democracy."
One of the Occupy supporters at the scene said he was there because he had been arrested at the same time as Wong, when police cleared the remaining protest encampment near government headquarters last month.
"I'm a student too, and I have a duty to support him and to root for him," said the student, also surnamed Wong.
A police spokesman later confirmed that Joshua Wong and the three other Scholarism members were arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly, adding that police would "reserve the right to prosecute" in future, the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
Veteran democracy activist and independent lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, known by his nickname "Long Hair," said the police were trying to create an atmosphere of fear around the movement by summoning people weeks after the Occupy movement had ended.
"They want to send a message to society that they will pursue this to the bitter end," Leung told RFA. "But they will be hard-pressed if they want to charge large numbers of people in a short space of time."
"That's why they are arresting people before they have gathered enough evidence against them. They may bring charges on the basis of evidence they find later," he said.
He said the police were anxious to prevent further mass protests while a two-month government consultation process on electoral reforms that kicked off earlier this month is under way.
"They are creating an atmosphere of white terror and arresting people nonstop so that no one will come out in protest lightly," Leung said.
The Occupy Central movement, also known as the "Umbrella Movement" after protesters used umbrellas to ward off tear gas and pepper spray, tried to put pressure on Beijing to allow the public nomination of candidates in the 2017 elections for the city's leader.
China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), announced on Aug. 31 that while all of Hong Kong's five million voters will cast a ballot for the first time in the poll, they may only choose between candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing nomination committee.
Pan-democratic politicians and Occupy protesters have dismissed the Aug. 31 ruling as "fake universal suffrage," and called on the Hong Kong government to renegotiate the election arrangements with Beijing.
As the student leaders were questioned, a new report warned that press freedom in Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, had deteriorated over the past year.
The report, released in Hong Kong on Friday by the PEN American Center, describes a "shrinking environment for free expression," 17 years after the handover.
It comes as chief executive Leung Chun-ying is under fire from journalists and academics for criticizing a student publication in his annual policy speech on Wednesday for "errors" after it discussed notions of Hong Kong autonomy and identity.
Asked by lawmakers on Thursday whether he supported the right of students to discuss issues such as Hong Kong independence, Leung told the city's Legislative Council: "My comments in my policy address had nothing to do with press freedom or academic freedom."
Haven of free press
But according to PEN American Center, Hong Kong's former status as a haven of free press is fast disappearing.
"Hong Kong's position as a media hub and harbor for press freedom is increasingly insecure," the Center said in a statement on Friday.
It cited economic pressures on pro-democracy newspapers and broadcasters, personnel changes that are widely seen as attempts to silence critics of Beijing, cyber attacks against online media, and unsolved cases of physical violence against journalists.
"The confluence of attacks—economic, physical, and cyber—on press and media outlets in Hong Kong, coinciding with a period of political turmoil, drives suspicion about the future of press freedom in this crucial media hub," PEN American Center executive director Suzanne Nossel said.
"While the forces behind these incidents are shadowy, the pattern of interference and intimidation is hard to mistake," she said.
The group called on the Hong Kong authorities to fully investigate reports of physical attacks on journalists.
More than 25 journalists were injured in clashes with police during the Occupy Central movement, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).
One reporter told RFA he was held down and kicked by police officers while shooting footage of the clearance of protest sites in Kowloon's Mong Kok district.
Last year, former Chinese-language Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau was hospitalized following a brutal knife attack, while the sacking of Commercial Radio talk-show host Li Wei-ling and the removal of other prominent journalists from senior editorial positions have also raised concerns.
Last week, unidentified attackers threw petrol bombs at the offices and home of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, whose flagship Apple Daily newspaper was the target of a major cyber attack in June.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Dai Weisen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.