Anti Extradition Bill Protest 2019. A reporter running for cover as tear gas canisters explode during clashes with protesters outside the Central Government Office in Hong Kong. (Image by Dave Coulson Photography / Shutterstock)

Hong Kong Journalists Association lodges complaints to independent watchdog against police treatment of media during protest; Would Singapore journalists have the same means?

As journalists do their best to cover the historic extradition bill protests in Hong Kong this past few days, stories are surfacing about the violent treatment of on-the-ground reporters and media personnel by the police. According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) has filed a complaint to a police watchdog over 27 such cases.

According to allegations lodged with the Independent Police Complaints Council on Monday (17 June), journalists in Hong Kong fell victim to tear gas deployed by police forces, baton beatings and violence, and unjustified searches and obstruction.

The HKJA at the same time wrote a letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor calling for an independent investigation to look into whether the police were acting on official orders to respond in the manner they did.

“The association has sufficient reason to believe that [the police officers involved] used unnecessary violence and intimidation against some people who were evidently journalists, that far exceeded the legal enforcement rights the police can use to keep public order,” the HKJA said

The association listed 10 cases of police firing tear gas in the direction of reporters at a short range – three of those cases resulted in reporters being hit on the head directly with the substance. There were also incidents officers damaging journalists’ equipment with batons or harming the journalists themselves. In one case, a reporter was allegedly injured by rounds of rubber bullets or beanbags.

Additionally, the HJKA listed eight complaints involving the police pushing or chasing reporters with shields and batons to prevent them from observing the clearance of protesters by police forces. At least one reporter was injured in the scuffle.

Finally, there were also two cases of officers using their flashlights to disrupt photo-taking and three cases of searches without justification.

The association pointed out that in all cases the victims were clearly identifiable as journalists or media personnel from their reflective vests and helmets with the word “PRESS” written on them on to of media badges. Journalists also clearly identified themselves to the police and were not among protesters.

SCMP reported that the HJKA informed the independent council that most of the reporters were willing to submit evidence to the council to back their complaints. The few who did not want to come forward out of safety concerns or employer restrictions had already provided the relevant evidence to the association.

What if this happens in Singapore?

Reading reports of unfolding events in Singapore, in particular these complaints lodged by the HJKA to an independent council against the police, it begs the question of how the same incident would play out in Singapore. Can journalists make any complaints against the police to an independent watchdog in Singapore?

A key thing to note is that there is no such independent watchdog here. Should a media personnel have a complaint against the police, the only formal avenue they have is to file that complaint with the internal affairs department of the police. But really, that’s just the police policing themselves.

In fact, we could say that TOC is the closest thing to an independent watchdog when it comes to monitoring complaints from the public. We get messages and emails every day from the public sharing their concerns and complaints.

But clearly, an organised independent body whose authority is respected and relied by all parties will be more effective.

Another point to note is the Public Order Act amendments. The POA enables the police to seize recordings made of law enforcement activities:

Basically what this means is that the police are effectively allowed to hold onto any incriminating evidence against them. Will the authorities release such evidence in the case of complaints made against them?

For example, the case of 14 year old Benjamin Lim who was picked up at school by the police when a complaint was made against the boy for outrage of modesty. In that case, the police claimed that their officers who went to the school did not wear any t-shirts with the word ‘police’ or the police logo, but there is not video or photo evidence every provided to corroborate their stance.

If Hong Kong as a similar provision to Singapore (Section 38 of the Public Order Act), the journalists who were victims of harsh treatment by the police wouldn’t be able to present their evidence to the council.