July 1 Protest: Reporters targeted by police

Ho Wing Hong

[中文][Aug 2011 - The JournalistI do not have much experience covering large-scale protests. But this year I was one of those at the scene of the scuffles which erupted in the evening of July 1. I was witness to the confrontation between the protestors, police and members of the press.

There were two “war fronts” that evening. I spent more time following People Power's protest at the Bank of China Tower. In fact, when the first protesters walking in front of the rally, which was made up of more than one thousand people, reached Admiralty, the police blockade had already taken shape in front of BOC Tower.

The Police Tactical Unit in formation, surrounding demonstrators opposite the Bank of China Building.
There, PTU members had formed a solid line across the two-way traffic lanes. Many police vehicles were parked behind them. This police formation sent an obvious message to everyone who came by: No crossing this line regardless.

The first question that popped up in my mind was: The People Power protestors are going to Government House, which is farther up the hill. What will happen if they are blocked at the bottom of the hill? Will they simply leave peacefully, after chanting a few slogans?

The protesters of People Power were relatively well organised. They had not planned to confront the police in their thousands. The key players were the several dozens walking ahead of the crowd, all wearing face masks. Together with some prominent legislators, they took up two traffic lanes.

These demonstrators were outnumbered by newsmen on their flanks, mainly photographers jostling for best positions for pictures should scuffles break out. In other words, demonstrators in front kept close to each other to form a front. A considerable number of policemen and reporters were scattered about. I and two other colleagues were walking alongside some police officers.

Red warning raised after pepper sprays

The police at the back first raised two orange coloured banners with the warning: “Police Cordon. Do Not Cross”. Some distance away, police used a loudspeaker to read out the warning. The volume was low, and drowned out by surrounding noise. I could not hear the words clearly, and doubt if anyone else could.
When the scuffles first erupted, it was the protesters and police who confronted each other, with reporters trapped in between. We were being forced to the side, and then pushed back to the centre again by the police.Before I could think of what would happen next, a hot and bitter feeling struck my throat. This was the first shot of pepper spray by the police, which hit all reporters at the front. No reporter went unscathed.

Here came my second query: It was more than obvious that we all were reporters, holding cameras in our hands. So why did the police use force and pepper-spray us?

Four minutes went by. We still had not recovered from our shock. A protester suddenly threw at the police something the size of a fist. This triggered a second round of pepper sprays, my two cameramen and a number of other photographers were shot in their face and body. I was lucky, I only sustained burning pain in my right hand.

A few seconds later, police at the back raised another red banner carrying these words: “Stop Charging, Or We Use Force”. One may question the definition of “force”, or whether it includes the use of pepper sprays. However, police showed the red warning banner only after firing a second round of sprays. Wasn't it a little too late?
Reporters bearing the brunt of police pepper spray. 

(Photograph courtesy of Ming Pao)
In the next one hour and more, both People Power protesters and the police calmed down. I was assigned to support colleagues at Connaught Road where police would soon take action to remove members of the League of Social Democrats who were lying on the road and blocking traffic. But we were stopped by the police from proceeding beyond the Hong Kong Club. That area had been declared a restricted zone.

“Cast a wide net, capture all”

We could not show our staff cards, which were left in the company vehicle. But since we were a television reporting crew, our equipment carry the company logo, which identifies us. In spite of that, we were told by the police that no one, including reporters, could enter the area.

Here came my next query. The police had the situation well under control and they had started to remove protesters from the site. Why should they still put up such an extensive restricted zone. Besides us, other reporters were also blocked from entering. We had no choice but to detour to take a longer path through the passenger tunnel near the old Star Ferry Piers to City Hall.

In recent protests, the police have resorted to various tactics to restrain and circumscribe protesters, following up with site clearance and arrests. When protesters refuse to leave or they block the road, the police will encircle them. Even if they later calm down or decide to quit, or are willing to listen to police's call and leave, they will not be allowed to do so. In other words, it is certain that they will be arrested once they are encircled, and will end up in the police station.

Reporters at clearance sites will have to show their staff card before they are allowed to leave. Those who fail to do so will be taken as “demonstrator suspects who attempt to escape from the scene”. This is despite the fact that they are carrying large TV cameras with company logos, and equipment like tripods and ladders. This time, we met with difficult moments negotiating with the police before their commander came on the scene and ordered us to leave.

This also tells the reason why Law Yuk Kai of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, who was there as an observer and stayed on that evening until the last minute, was almost taken away by the police near the end of the incident. This is all part of the police's strategy of “casting a wide net to capture all”.

The police may blame the reporters for ignoring the messy situation and hunting news around at the frontlines. But that is precisely the role of the media: to stay at the front, observe and identify those who abuse their freedoms as well as their powers, and to truthfully bring to the attention of the general public events as they unfold out there.

Translated by Melanie Wan