The work of journalists cannot override the restrictions put in place by the authorities to help restore order, Hong Kong’s leader has said.
Addressing the media at her weekly briefing, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday again backed the city’s police force over its changes to guidelines for defining journalists.
Starting from last Wednesday, officers have limited access to restricted areas and press briefings to reporters and photographers registered with the government or internationally recognised media, a move Lam called appropriate and objective.
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The rules effectively mean student reporters working for unregistered online media outlets, some of whom covered the anti-government protests last year, could be prevented from doing so again.
Police said earlier they had trouble recognising who was a genuine reporter, accusing some protesters in the past of posing as journalists.
After first commenting on Facebook last week, Lam said she felt obliged to “stress again” that her government respected press freedom, but that it came with a caveat.
“I hope that during their process of gathering news, [members of the press] can understand that we also have restrictions, especially when it was not during a calm environment but a chaotic scene, where law enforcement is being carried out,” she said.
Referring to last year’s civil unrest, Lam said there was a pressing need to know the identity of journalists in such situations.
“So what the police have adopted, I believe, is a rather objective, open and equal platform,” she said. “The issue of police suppressing press freedom does not arise.”
Lam added that police were only following a list of media already registered with the Government News and Media Information System, a platform used to send information to press outlets.
A total of 206 press organisations had registered, including some online news portals, and the government welcomed other press outlets signing up, she said.
But the Hong Kong Journalists Association said the registration system was intended only for the government to disseminate information to what were considered more conventional and established press outlets. The scheme had failed to keep pace with a rapidly changing media landscape and made it difficult for citizen journalists to fulfil their roles, chairman Chris Yeung said.
“This also concerns a matter of principle,” he said. He noted it was normal for governments around the world to restrict journalists’ access to press conferences in official buildings, but the police changes concerned access to public areas, ranging from shopping malls to streets, the scenes of some of the most intense clashes of the past year.
Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung on Tuesday laid down three criteria under which reporters would be left alone to cover public events without restrictions, as he reiterated that the force respected the media and their rights to report.
“Reporters or anyone in the public are free to record whatever in public space. We have no intention to interrupt such action, including the reporting of online media,” Tang told reporters after attending a Yau Tsim Mong district council meeting.
“There are three criteria. First, those reporters are not taking part in the event, for example, not participating in riots or the public events. Second, they will not wilfully obstruct our operations. And third, they are not posing any threat or trying to harm our police officers.
“I think these three criteria are very humble so that our officers can do their work safely and effectively.”
Tang said that before making the amendments to the Police General Orders, police had discussed the changes with the relevant press associations, although he did not name them.
Separately, the chief executive was asked about Nabela Qoser, the RTHK journalist whose three-year probation period was recently extended, while an investigation was also reopened into complaints against her.
Her staff union has said the move was in retaliation for her aggressive reporting style. Qoser is known for her rapid-fire, often blunt questioning of officials and senior police officers over their handling of the protests, which were sparked last June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
But Lam refused to get drawn into the topic, saying it was a human resources issue to be handled by Qoser’s management in accordance with the civil service’s protocol, although she stressed RTHK was a government department.
“One would not expect the chief executive to get himself or herself involved in the daily routine of operational matters, especially when there are proper authorities to deal with those matters,” she said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- As Hong Kong police shift media guidelines, who will they recognise as journalists and what does it mean for those they do not?
- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam denies police media move amounts to suppression of city’s press