The decision by Hong Kong police to limit access to restricted areas and press briefings to outlets registered with the government or internationally recognised media has sparked an outcry in the industry.
Under the rules, which took effect on Wednesday, police will no longer recognise press accreditations issued by local media groups or journalist associations, unless the reporters are working for outlets registered with the government’s Information Services Department or reputable news organisations.
Press associations and Hong Kong journalism schools alike have blasted the access restrictions, warning of a threat to the city’s press freedom, with one union so far threatening legal action.
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Here is what you need to know about how and why the rule was changed, as well as the likely impact of the revision.
Who are regarded as ‘media representatives’ now?
Police General Orders Chapter 39, which gives guidelines on public and media relations, previously stated that “all officers at the scene” shall facilitate the work of news media as much as possible and accord media representatives consideration and courtesy, while not blocking camera lenses. While the language in the updated version offers nearly identical guidelines, they are now preceded by the caveat that it be done “without compromising operational efficiency”.
Before the revision, media representatives were defined as reporters, photographers and television crews in possession of proof of identity issued by individual newspapers, agencies, TV and radio stations, or a membership card issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) or Hong Kong Press Photographers Association.
Police limit access to press briefings to government-recognised outlets, sparking concern and criticism
The revamped edition redefines the category as reporters, photographers and television crews in possession of identification issued by media agencies registered under the Government News and Media Information System (GNMIS), or internationally recognised and reputable non-local news agencies, newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasters.
That means those who hold only a membership card issued by the HKJA or Hong Kong Press Photographers Association no longer qualify as media representatives.
A senior police officer involved in formulating the new policy said: “We found these associations are not representational. Many journalists from mainstream media are not their members.”
At present, there are 205 news outlets registered with GNMIS. Online media portals are also eligible for GNMIS recognition as long as they are already registered under the Registration of Local Newspapers Ordinance, staffed by at least one editor and reporter, and update their sites at least five days a week.
Why did the police redefine who they recognise as journalists?
Police have accused some people of pretending to be reporters in order to obstruct operations, something press associations have denied in most cases.
The HKJA and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association have also called on police to stop what they described as increasing violence from officers, including physical and verbal attacks on frontline journalists covering the social unrest.
The force announced the amendment to the city’s four press associations and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in a letter on Tuesday, saying that while the force endeavoured to facilitate the normal duties of reporters, it was evident many self-proclaimed reporters had attended various public events.
“With some suspected of obstructing police work or even assaulting police officers, this has burdened the law enforcement action of police officers,” the letter read.
“Following the amendment, the definition of media representatives will become clearer and more unequivocal, allowing frontline officers to effectively and swiftly verify the identity of media representatives so that facilitation can be provided without compromising police operations.”
Police so far had netted at least 13 fake press cards along with a bogus press vest carrying a logo of a television station.
Security chief John Lee Ka-chiu wrote in his blog on Wednesday that many people had dressed like journalists – typically identified by bright yellow vests – and blended into the crowds of press over the past year, only to deny they were media or simply walk away when intercepted by police.
He also said at least three “self-proclaimed” journalists were prosecuted after two allegedly stormed into the Legislative Council complex on July 1 last year, while a third in a neon vest attempted to snatch a suspect from police in Sha Tin last July.
Chief Superintendent Kwok Ka-chuen, head of the police’s public relations branch (PPRB), reiterated on Wednesday the new definition would provide more objective grounds for the force to define who should be allowed to report in specific circumstances.
How will unrecognised media be restricted when doing their job?
The new policy means a substantial, though not officially quantified, number of media unrecognised by the force can be banned from covering police-controlled events, press conferences and outdoor activities that are cordoned off, though access to incidents and protests in public areas will not be blocked.
While unrecognised journalists can theoretically cover a mass rally in an open area, including documenting police operations and interviewing protesters, officers are not obliged to help them.
In instances where officers cordon off an area out of operational concerns or conduct a stand up media briefing, unrecognised media will not be granted access. Additionally, these journalists could find themselves exposed to charges that those working for recognised outlets would not face, including attending an illegal assembly or violating social-distancing rules.
“If someone claims to be a reporter, but I do not know about their background, or if they are doing genuine reporting work, won’t they pose a danger to our officers or obstruct our work?” asked the senior insider, citing a protest scene in a shopping centre with only five demonstrators but more than 150 people in yellow press vests.
Who would be affected the most under the new policy?
Freelancers, student reporters and unregistered online media outlets, some of whom rely on membership cards issued by the HKJA or Hong Kong Press Photographers Association, are likely to be affected the most.
HKJA issues memberships if a person can prove at least half of his or her income comes from journalism. The association also issues membership cards to trainees, or students training in journalism or serving a form of apprenticeship.
University of Hong Kong student Thomas Yau Chin-pang, chairman of the student union’s Campus TV, said the change would definitely make things harder for student reporters.
“Originally, the police general orders said media representatives include TV reporters, and we have argued with policemen that we are indeed TV reporters,” Yau said.
“Sometimes police officers refused to accept our argument. They [the police] said TV reporters referred to those employed, registered with the GIS, or are members of HKJA. Now it’s definitely much harder for us to make our case.”
Freelancers should be employed by a news agency that assigns them work, otherwise every individual could be a freelancer. This is not fair
Hong Kong police insider
In May, a 13-year-old student reporter was taken away by the police in a Tsim Sha Tsui mall as protesters gathered around the city. The boy, who claimed to be volunteering for Student Depth Media, a student-run news organisation set up this February, was later released after police warned his mother against allowing him to take part in “illegal child labour”.
PPRB chief Kwok said that over the past year, the force on occasion had witnessed very young reporters, aged 12 or 13, at protests, raising concerns about their safety.
Asked about the arrangement for freelance media members, the senior insider said: “Practically speaking, freelancers should be employed by a news agency that assigns them work, otherwise every individual could be a freelancer. This is not fair.”
He added that if officers saw child reporters at the scene, they would take them to a police station out of safety concerns and notify their parents.
How has the industry reacted to the new policy?
The new policy sparked an uproar among press associations and journalism schools despite police claims that the changes offer more transparency and will not impinge on press freedom.
HKJA chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing complained the change was “very sudden and regrettable”, as the existing arrangement had been agreed upon after discussions with police and the government.
“It’s damaging to our working relationship with the police, as they changed it without consulting us,” he said. “There has been no proven case where the HKJA or the photographers association’s membership cards caused any problem. The force just used the public impression that there are ‘fake reporters’ as the basis to make this change.”
The Hong Kong News Executives’ Association also expressed “strong concerns” over the new media arrangement, stressing that any measures should primarily facilitate reporters’ work and ensure the industry was free from unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions.
In a joint statement, the HKJA and seven other journalist organisations said the police move contravened Article 27 of the Basic Law, which guaranteed press freedom.
The HKJA said it was taking legal advice and might consider applying for a judicial review to see whether the amended guidelines infringed upon the Basic Law.
Seven Hong Kong journalism schools, meanwhile, issued a rare joint statement urging the force to reverse the “ill-advised” policy, saying it would effectively restrict news reporting.
“We are concerned that the new policy will amount to giving clear instructions to officers to disperse non-mainstream journalists who have done no wrong and are only exercising their right to gather information,” said the statement, which was drafted by the journalism department at Baptist University.
The schools said they acknowledged the difficulties faced by frontline officers in distinguishing journalists from others attending protests, but said the effect of the new policy was to curtail the freedom to report.
Student reporters from five local universities also issued a joint statement, accusing police of introducing an official licensing system for journalists intended to suppress most online, citizen and school media.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Seven Hong Kong journalism schools blast police’s media access restrictions, warning of threat to city freedoms
- Hong Kong police limit access to press briefings to news outlets recognised by government, sparking concern and criticism from media groups