“I remember one time in Wan Chai, the police started to run, chase, and arrest protestors. A young woman was panicking, and she just stood in the doorway of a building. She didn’t do anything and had nothing in her hands. Two or three police officers from the Special Tactical Contingent ran at her and pressed her to the floor, dragged her out of the building and hit her with a baton. I was taking a video of her at that moment, I looked at her through the camera, and she also looked at me directly and kept yelling ‘Help me.’ “
Photojournalist Lam Yik recalls this scene from the protests that erupted in Hong Kong in 2019. They began when the Hong Kong government proposed a new extradition law for the city. The proposed law would have allowed criminal suspects – at the discretion of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
The protests started out as large and peaceful events, with some protests counting in the millions of participants. But on June 12th events took a darker and more ominous tone as police began to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protestors.
“At first, I thought it would be as ‘usual’ as the rest of the civil movements in Hong Kong, but 12 June 2019 changed the landscape when the police force used rubber bullets in the area around Tim Wa Avenue (in the Admiralty section of Hong Kong Island)” Lam Yik told. From then on, the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons became common in a city once known for having one of the best police forces in Asia.
Alex Chan was driven to become a photojournalist himself by the protests: “Before the 2019 protests I was a student studying computer science. During the protests I changed my studies to journalism as I felt the responsibility to tell the stories of people and use my photos to remind people not to forget.”
Some of the most dramatic clashes between the protestors and the police came during the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. There police surrounded the University trapping protestors inside. The back-and-forth combat was violent and fiery, almost medieval, and in the end over 1000 activists were arrested. Jo Cheng recalled of the end of the siege: “The protesters, mostly students, tried to escape desperately … but failed to do so.”
Alex Chan also has vivid memories of the siege: “I can’t forget the depressing mood when students and protesters were trapped in the school for days and were starving, while they tried using various methods to escape. When I was walking to the police check-line while leaving I needed to raise my both hands up with a gun pointed to my face.”
As the protests continued and the violence between the police and the protestors escalated, another worrying trend surfaced: the police not only turned their fire on the protestors, but on the press who were there to cover them. Freedom of the Press is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. This set of laws in Hong Kong’s constitution and protects the “one country, two systems” principle that gives the city more freedoms than mainland China.
The actions of police officers became a method of both intimidation and an attempt to silence those who reported on the protests. And in doing so, those actions also became a way to undermine the Basic Law and attempt to constrain and control the press. Lam Yik recounted: “As the social unrest kept escalating, the police force started to target the press, including ‘stop and search’, verbal threatening or even aiming at reporters with weapons”.
She went on to recount being shot with pepper balls by police: “I was on assignment that day with a reporter, she was wearing a yellow vest with the word ‘reporter’, and I was wearing a press card. I remember the police started to run and arrest the protestors in Yau Ma Tei. They caught three girls and pressed them to the floor. My colleague and I ran to report the situation and all of a sudden a pepper ball was shot by the police and hit one girl’s arm. And when I look at the police, they pointed their gun at us. We yelled loud and raised up our hands with the surrender pose and said ‘we are reporters, please don’t shoot us’, and they opened fire.”
Alex Chan also had similar experiences. “I have been arrested once by police accusing me of using a ‘fake’ press card and detained me for 40 hours on October 1st 2019. I have been treated with pepper-sprayed and tear gas throughout the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. I was one of the journalists on the scene when multiple police officers forced us to kneel down, and pepper-sprayed us on May 5th 2020 in Mongkok.”
The use of violence against journalists in 2019 was not the end of the assault on press freedom in the city. The issue of press freedom in Hong Kong became much more perilous in 2020 when Hong Kong’s new National Security Law came into effect on June 30, 2020. This new law, enacted by an act through the government in Beijing without input from the government of Hong Kong, makes any act that can be seen as secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces illegal, and carries maximum sentences for such acts up to life in prison.
As of this writing according to Reporters Without Borders, there are currently ten journalists behind bars in Hong Kong charged with breaching the National Security Law.
The law has also been used to attack media outlets in Hong Kong. Broadcaster RTHK has come under scrutiny and has axed programming that could be seen as critical of the government. It has also withdrawn from journalism awards for coverage of critical stories, has seen numerous senior officials quit while other personalities have been fired, and has had a civil servant with no journalism experience and who promises to strengthen its “weak” editorial accountability installed as its leader.
Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, known for its support of the democracy movement in the city, was forced to close at the end of June. This came after its owner Jimmy Lai was arrested and charged under the National Security Law with colluding with a foreign country late last year. The paper’s assets were frozen in mid-June under the law, leading to the paper’s closure at the end of the month when it was unable to pay staff. Numerous senior editors for the paper have also been placed under arrest.
“The journalism industry has gone into an ‘ice-age’ as Apple Daily has been forced to close and with increasing pressure on us. It is more and more difficult to find a person willing to accept an interview for stories under the white terror. Furthermore, as the standard of the ‘red line’ is unknown, it is unclear if using photography to create work will violate the law, or sedition towards the regime itself” Alex Chan said.
Cheng Wai Hok shared a similar sentiment when I asked him about what he feared most under the law: “You don’t know what will cross the red line so that you have no choice but self-censorship which leads you to avoid politically sensitive issues.” And Lam Yik likewise agreed when she was asked: “We always said how to avoid the ‘red line’ under the NSL, but you can see the red line just keeps pushing.”
Even as press freedom erodes in Hong Kong, as well as many other civil rights, none of the three photojournalists are willing to give up their work or leave the city they call home. Lam Yik replied when asked about giving up photojournalism or leaving the city “No, I can’t, especially in this situation in Hong Kong. If I have the ability to let people know what is going on in HK, then this is my lifelong duty.”
When I asked Cheng Wai Hok about what he thought the future for Hong Kong held, he likened it to a dystopian novel: “I am not sure, but I think of this quote from George Orwell’s 1984: ‘Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed—no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.’”
But for some, like Alex Chan, there is still hope for better things in the future. And not just for photojournalists, but all Hong Kongers: “Hope. Although it seems weird to say that, but if we continue to insist on doing what we believe in, there will always be hope ahead.” But only time will tell which version of reality comes to pass.
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.