Hong Kong’s journalists on Monday hit out at police attacks on the press during Sunday’s mass protest in Kowloon against proposed amendments to the city’s laws that would allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China.
An estimated half a million people took to the streets of Kowloon in a bid to explain to citizens of mainland China why the planned amendments to the Fugitive Offenders’ Ordinance have met with mass opposition and widespread public anger in Hong Kong.
Chanting “Oppose renditions to China! Withdraw the law! We want full democracy!” the protesters marched on the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus, symbol of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s growing power in the former British colony, which had been cordoned off by police using two-meter high barriers.
One branch of the protest later broke away and marched north to the working class district of Mong Kok, which has been the scene of major clashes between police and protesters in recent years.
By 10 p.m. that evening, a large crowd had gathered in Mong Kok, to the surprise of shoppers and tourists from mainland China.
Police issued warnings that the protest was “an illegal assembly” and marched on the crowd, surrounding them and using shields and batons to force anyone not using the sidewalk to leave, leaving a number of protesters at the scene with visible bleeding from head injuries.
Large numbers of protesters were arrested, pushed to the ground and handcuffed.
The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) and Press Photographers’ Association said police had treated members of the press as if they were protesters.
“During the police clearance operation at Nathan Road in Mong Kok late on the evening of July 7, police officers repeatedly used their shields to shove frontline reporters and camera operators, verbally abusing and even beating reporters,” the groups said in a joint statement on Monday.
“Most of the reporters on the scene were wearing reflective vests with the words "journalist" or "Press" on them, wearing a press card, and moving back in accordance with police orders,” it said. “But even journalists who repeatedly stated their identity were still maliciously shoved by the police.”
“We strongly condemn these incidents,” the statement, published on the HKJA website, said.
'Peaceful and courteous means'
It detailed cases of journalists from Hong Kong’s 01.com news site and the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper who had been roughly treated by specific officers, who had then taken steps to hide their officer ID numbers. Another was prevented from filming by officers, who told him that “journalists have no special privileges.” All three journalists were wearing high-viz jackets emblazoned with the word “Press”.
Journalists were shoved by police alongside protesters in Mong Kok, but also shoved if there were no protesters present, the statement said.
Protest initiator and community activist Ventus Lau said the Mong Kok protest hadn’t been a part of the original plan, and that the organizers had no authority over what people did after the main protest ended.
“There were absolutely no plans for any activities after the protest, and citizens are free to do as they please,” Lau told journalists. “We were aware that some protesters were planning to return to Canton Road, Tsimshatsui or other tourist areas after the march ended to publicize our demands and concerns.”
“Everyone who came out today had the same idea: to use peaceful and courteous means to make our message clear to visitors from mainland China,” he said.
Mainland tourists who spoke to RFA didn’t appear to have taken the message on board, however.
A mainland tourist on their way to West Kowloon station said they thought the protests were in favor of independence for Hong Kong, an idea that is anathema to Beijing.
“Yeah I sort of knew about it -- Hong Kong independence, right?” the tourist said. “I came here on the high-speed railway, and if it weren’t for the protest, there would have been a shuttle bus to my hotel.”
High-speed rail services between Guangzhou South station and West Kowloon station were temporarily suspended on Sunday, with notices advising passengers to take the older “through train” route from Guangzhou East station to Hong Kong.
“This is really inconvenient, and it really confused me when I heard about it,” a passenger surnamed Chen told RFA. “I am really unhappy about it.”
A Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student surnamed Lai who took part in Sunday’s protest said he had come out because the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam had refused to totally withdraw the amendments, insisting instead that they have been suspended with no timetable for reintroduction to the Legislative Council (LegCo).
Closed-door meeting or open consultation?
He called for open consultation with the public on the amendments, as opposed to the closed-door meetings suggested to student bodies by Lam’s officials last week.
“Why would a government want to hold secret meetings behind closed doors?” Lau said. “Any meetings should be open, and include all citizens.”
“But before any dialogue can take place, they have to respond to our five demands, because Carrie Lam has never done this in previous news conferences,” he said.
A protester surnamed Lo, who brought his young son along on the march, said he wanted to teach him the meaning of the freedom to take part in peaceful protest.
“Young people today are doing for us what we were unable to do when we were young,” Lo said. “We have no excuses for not supporting young people when they come out in protest.”
Meanwhile, the HKJA called in its annual report for the extradition amendments to be totally withdrawn, and warned of deteriorating conditions for journalists in the months to come.
The report cites 27 complaints filed by journalists to the independent police watchdog against police officers over alleged use of excessive force during anti-extradition protests on June 10 and June 12.
“The number and severity of those cases have raised the question of whether police officers have deliberately targeted reporters and, if so, why,” the report said.
“There are concerns that people’s right to know will be jeopardised if reporters are not given easy and safe access to the places where news events are unfolding,” it said.
The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected by the "one country, two systems" framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and members of the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by Chinese authorities, and extradited to face trial in Chinese courts.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.