Journalists in Hong Kong have strongly condemned repeated attacks on media workers by the police during a wave of recent pro-democracy protests in the city.
"Violence against journalists has been overwhelming," a joint statement on the website of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) said. "We are filled with indignation."
It said that during a police operation to disperse protesters in Mong Kok on May 10, officers had forced journalists to kneel on the ground and to stop filming, in some cases spraying them with pepper spray at close range.
"The police stifled the right to [carry out reporting activities] by intercepting and attacking, trampl[ing] on the dignity of the media with insulting language and bad attitude," according to the HKJA statement, which was also signed by the Hong Kong Press Photographers' Association, independent commentators and journalism educators, as well as the staff unions of government broadcaster RTHK, pro-democracy Next Media, and the Ming Pao newspaper.
Hong Kong police are required by their own standing orders to "facilitate the work of news media as much as possible and accord media representatives consideration and courtesy," the statement said.
The HKJA said it had recorded the sharpest fall yet in its Press Freedom Index for 2019, citing threats to journalists' safety while covering the protests that escalated in June 2019 in response to plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to allow extradition to mainland China.
While Lam eventually withdrew the hated legal amendments, the movement had already broadened to include demands for an amnesty for arrested protesters, an inquiry into police violence, an end to the description of protests as "riots," and fully democratic elections.
As many as 65 percent of journalists interviewed by HKJA to compile the index said they had faced verbal abuse and/or physical violence while trying to do their jobs, the HKJA found.
Many causes for decline
The drop in press freedom scores was largely due to media owners or management exerting pressure on employees to affect editorial autonomy; threats to reporters when covering the news; the media ’s access to information; and also whether there are enough legal safeguards for journalists to obtain information required.
Out of 327 journalists, 95 percent said press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened compared to a year earlier, while 72 percent said the ruling Chinese Communist Party's ever- increasing control over the daily lives of Hong Kong people had made them uneasy about reporting dissent and criticism of the authorities.
Nearly 93 percent said they had seen law enforcement officers using violence to hamper their work.
More than 65 percent said they had personally suffered violent treatment at the hands of police or people opposing the pro-democracy movement.
"The violence included having strong lights shone at their eyes, verbal abuse, pushed forcefully, blocking camera lens deliberately, snatching photographic equipment, spraying pepper spray and throwing tear gas projectile at a close range," the HKJA said.
It said journalists had suffered skin allergies, diarrhea, and respiratory problems from tear gas and other chemical substances, while some had bruises, and skin damage, with some admitted to hospital for treatment, including stitches, after being attacked.
Assaults by Beijing supporters
Pro-Beijing and pro-government protesters had verbally abused, shoved, or attacked reporters with fists and feet, hard objects, or corrosive substances, the HKJA found.
They had also covered their camera lenses or tried to wrench their equipment away from them.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong, Amnesty International and the HKJA honored journalists in the city's annual Human Rights Press Awards on Tuesday.
Agence France-Presse, the BBC,and the New York Times were recognized for reporting on the Rohingya, while the Wall Street Journal was awarded for exposing invasive security measures targeting the Uyghur Muslim minority in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.
“Our fight for freedom of press has always been an uphill battle, and it will continue to be an uphill battle," Sonny Swe, publisher of the Yangon-based weekly magazine Frontier Myanmar, told the award ceremony.
"Freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. I will always fight for them because I know – first-hand – how it feels to have your freedom forcibly taken away from you," he said.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.