By Aurora Herrera

Violence escalates in Hong Kong as protests enter their fifth month.

Hong Kong is in crisis. Since March 2019 hundreds of thousands of protesters have marched against a proposed extradition bill which, if passed, would see offenders from Hong Kong being sent to mainland China to stand trial for criminal charges. As the bill has been suspended, protests have now taken on a larger remit for pro-democracy and the number of protesters has increased from hundreds of thousands to over one million. Protests have turned violent and according to organisations like the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), journalists have been specifically targeted.

Hong Kong belonged to the British for 150 years and as such developed differently to mainland China. In 1984 when Britain ceded the territory back to China, it was under the agreed “one country, two systems” principle which mandated that Hong Kong would maintain a level of independence for the next 50 years. Consequently, Hong Kong has developed its own public and political systems including legal protocols. Therefore, when the proposed extradition bill was announced, it represented an undermining of Hong Kong’s abilities to run its own affairs independent of mainland China.

Controlling the narrative

Censorship is a word that has become synonymous with the Chinese government. 10,000 websites are presently unavailable in China, barring via the use of some VPNs. As The Washington Post reports, it claims such censorship practices are crucial to the country’s “internet sovereignty” and therefore not up for negotiation. Outlets such as Bloomberg, the New York Times, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have been blocked for years. So have social media services such as Facebook and Twitter and all Google-owned services, including YouTube. Other popular services such as Dropbox, Slack and WhatsApp are also prohibited.

According to one Bloomberg article, journalists from mainland China were sent to cover the protests with an aim to shift the narrative to focus “largely on interviews with pro-China officials and business leaders, as well as the commitment of local police to restoring law and order and the frustrations of residents whose lives have been disrupted by the protests.”

One article in the Guardian noted, “Over the past two months, Chinese state media outlets have gone from near silence on the protests and blanket censorship of footage of the demonstrations to actively pushing news, editorials, videos and online discussions.”

“…It is intercepting a small part of the information, distorting it and magnifying it.”

The article went on to quote Fang Kecheng, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong saying, “On the topic of Hong Kong, the mainland media can’t be seen as journalism. It’s purely propaganda…It is intercepting a small part of the information, distorting it and magnifying it.”

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has been verifying reports  published by mainland media. In July the RTHK union called out senior management for instructing reporters to present false information. Members of the public broadcaster also joined in a city wide strike in August saying in an open letter to all Hong Kong residents that, “the presenters accuse the government of ignoring the demands of the public and allowing police to use excessive force against protesters.”

Threats to media freedom

According to an IPI article, if the extradition bill is passed, both journalists and their sources could be sent to mainland China, where clampdown on critical opinions has increased and over 110 journalists are currently in prison.

Shirley Yam of the Honk Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) explained that, “It’s not just about the bill but about China’s attitude towards press freedom and its understanding of judicial independence. Several journalists and editors from Hong Kong have been harassed or even sentenced to jail by mainland authorities with charges that have nothing to do with their reports.”

Yuen Chan, a Senior Lecturer at the City University of London also commented, “We’ve seen creeping self-censorship, we’ve seen businesses withdrawing their advertising under pressure from needing to do business with China. So, all those things are very real threats. But at the same time, compared to the press in mainland China, the Hong Kong media is far more vibrant, is out there exposing scandals and people are very proud of that. And the fact that the media can report on these demonstrations is very important to the people of Hong Kong.”

This systematic threat to the practice of independent journalism is compounded by the fact that journalists have been attacked during the protests.


An IPI article states, “Multiple journalists have suffered injuries, including one who was splashed with corrosive liquid and another who was permanently blinded in one eye after being shot in the face with a police projectile. The incidents have prompted some media outlets to partially recall their reporting crews from the frontline.”

According to an article published by the Columbia Journalism Review, RTHK journalist Damon Pang commented, “Before, the police would try to block us from taking a photo…but now they will actually storm at us and attack us.” The article goes on to say that the police chief Stephen Lo said he “felt sorry” if journalists believed they were “treated impolitely.”

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) reported 26 accounts of police abuse against journalists, filing a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) on June 17. According to HKJA, journalists, were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and beaten with batons.

Amnesty International, which reviewed footage of the police actions, concluded that “All of the examples Amnesty International verified are violations of international law and standards on the use of force by law enforcement officials,” and  “Those actions and others [posed] a serious risk of severe injury, or even death, to protesters.”

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen commented on the attacks saying, “It is disturbing enough that journalists in Hong Kong are threatened by the proposed changes to local extradition law, which may force them to face a justice system in mainland China that has suppressed journalistic rights for decades, and directly contradicts the principles enshrined under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy. But it is at least equally upsetting that journalists covering peaceful protests are attacked and intimidated by police.”

“Because of the work of journalists, the public is able to understand the truth.”

The Hong Kong News Executives’ Association was quoted saying, “Because of the work of journalists, the public is able to understand the truth.”

When the fight for democracy is raging that is when the free, independent practice of journalism is most important, especially in holding power to account in a region increasingly at risk of greater authoritarian control.

On the RSF Press Freedom Index, Hong Kong currently ranks 79 and, China is at 177.

As the protests unfold and journalists continue to be targeted, the Public Media Alliance reiterates that it condemns any attacks on journalists. Journalists should be able to report on the protests and their developments freely and independently – without state interference or other threats. The inability of journalists to undertake this role is a serious threat to press freedom and democracy.

Read More: For a summary of the attacks see IPI.

Header Image: A fireman extinguishes a blaze at the entrance to Central station in Hong Kong as a large group of journalists, mostly photojournalists, document the scene. (September 8, 2019). Credit: Joel Carillet/iStock