Photo-journalist: “Why was I roughed up?”

Liu Ngan Hung

[中文][Aug 2011 - The JournalistI have covered many large-scale demonstrations during my seven years as a photo-journalist, but in recent times the police have tightened the net when dealing with protesters as the number of scuffles have risen.

The chances of journalists getting hurt have also increased. What happened on the evening of July 1 is a clear example. That night, journalists were among those who were pepper-sprayed by police officers.

More than 100 police officers were deployed outside the Bank of China Building to block protesters from the People Power group when the procession got there.

Like the few dozens journalists there at the time I tried to find the best position to take pictures near the protesters who had indicated they would charge the police lines.

That was how journalists were trapped between the police line and the protesters who linked arms as they prepared to charge.

Soon the scuffle between the two groups began, and I saw both protesters and policemen falling down during the melee.

As the situation deteriorated with water bottles smashing into their ranks, the police went into the offensive to regain control. I saw some journalists being pushed away by the police.
Reporters bearing the brunt of police pepper spray. (Photograph courtesy of Ming Pao)

Resort to pepper spray

When the police resorted to using pepper spray, not only policemen, but some journalists who were trapped between the two sides also became accidental victims.

I was one of them and, fortunately, despite feeling the burning sensation on my face, my eyes were not affected and I could continue my work. However, many colleagues were not so lucky and they had to rinse their eyes in spite of the pain inflicted on them during the police action.

While I was preparing to continue taking pictures, a policeman approached came in front of me, grabbed me by my shoulders, and tried to press me down until I lost my balance and fell.

He kept on pushing me down in spite of my repeatedly shouting that I was a journalist, though I had not prominently displayed my press card.

Although I was not hurt, I felt helpless since I knew well it was futile to argue with the policeman. The only thing I could do was to get up and get on with my work.

I understand that prominently displaying the press card during civil unrest may assure a certain level of protection, but the police should have been fully aware that there was a group of journalists holding cameras and doing their work in the crowd.

What drove the policeman to treat me so violently?

That night I was only taking pictures as part of my journalistic coverage and had not posed a threat to anyone. To my knowledge, the police treated some cameramen even more violently, and some photo-journalists claim they were beaten up by policemen in the chaos.

Need for flexibility and mobility

What I could not understand was how there could have been any difficulty for the police to identify journalists who were carrying heavy photographic equipment.

I also question the failure of the police to adhere to the principle of providing assistance to journalists in covering the news – a principle the police have always claimed to follow.

Was it just a matter of miscommunication with the enforcers in the frontline, or has there been a change in principle?

The same situation will be repeated at every large-scale demonstration in the future if this problem is not addressed.

Officers from the Community Relations Bureau only arrived at the scene at the later stage of the protest when police were removing protesters one by one.

Only at this point was the smooth journalistic operation restored. While I am aware of the uniqueness of every situation due to the ever-changing circumstances in demonstrations, from the journalist’s point of view I only wanted to make a photographic record of the event rather than being an adversary of the police.

Journalists do not want privileges. We only want the police to understand that photo-journalists cannot be kept in designated positions while doing our jobs, especially during volatile situations in large-scale demonstrations.

It is necessary for journalists to remain flexible and mobile in order to take photographs.

Translated by Ambrose Leung