The Hong Kong Police Force announced amendments to its guidelines on Tuesday to restrict access to press briefings and restricted areas for journalists from news outlets not officially recognized by the government. Only government-registered and "internationally known" foreign media would be permitted, while outlets accredited by local press associations such as the Hong Kong Journalists Association would no longer be recognized.
Hong Kong Free Press' Kelly Ho reported on the justification for revising media access rules:
[Chief Superintendent Kenneth] Kwok said that although officers wanted to assist with “normal coverage” of large-scale public processions, they had faced increased challenges in enforcing the law. He said police had spotted some people claiming to be journalists mixed in with crowds at protests: “[They] allegedly obstructed police work, and even assaulted police officers.” [Source]
The move comes after months of pressure on the government to set up a press licensing system, which various journalists' associations decry as a move to constrict press freedoms. Back in May, Phila Siu at the South China Morning Post reported on local pro-Beijing political parties' calls to set up an official accreditation system:
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a former journalist, urged the government to establish an official press accreditation system, saying children were putting their safety at risk in its absence by reporting from protest venues.
Leung, from the Business and Professionals Alliance, said on Monday such a system could also prevent people from disguising themselves as reporters. [Source]
The South China Morning Post's Christy Leung and Tony Cheung reported on how the rule change effectively bans "unaccredited" media from reporting in certain areas, and the legal implications for journalists on the ground:
That means a substantial, although not officially quantified, number can be banned from covering police-controlled events and outdoor activities that are cordoned off, but access to incidents and protests in public areas will not be blocked.
[…] While those no longer officially recognised by police can still cover news events and protests in public areas, officers are not obliged to help them, and they can be subject to criminal offences including attending an illegal assembly or violating social-distancing rules. [Source]
One of the groups most affected by the rule change is student journalists. Also for the South China Morning Post, Lilian Cheng reported that seven local journalism schools issued a joint statement condemning the police actions, and suggested that they could take legal action to oppose the move:
“We are concerned that the new policy would amount to giving clear instructions to officers to disperse non-mainstream journalists who have done no wrong and only exercising their right to gather information,” said the statement, which was drafted by the journalism department of Baptist University.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said it was taking legal advice and might consider applying for a judicial review to see if the amended guidelines infringed Basic Law guarantees of press freedom. [Source]
Another concern about the rule change is that because many web-based news outlets are not recognized by the government, they face being excluded from police-controlled events in the future. Citizen News's Alvin Lum wrote on Twitter that many well known foreign media outlets may be affected by this move:
Obvious pitfall is leaving out "news website" with the revised definition of "internationally recognised and renowned non-local news agency, newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV broadcasting agency". Potentially affect excellent websites like Vice, Quartz, Buzzfeed, HuffPost, etc.. pic.twitter.com/fNmqPqBMP3
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) September 22, 2020
The rule change has significant implications for the coverage of public demonstrations. AFP's Xinqi Su wrote on Twitter about how many of the pivotal moments during the 2019 Hong Kong protests were captured by news outlets that are now unrecognized by the police:
What's at stake under HK police's redefinition of "media" ?
Here are a few examples of the work done by media that's gonna be un-recognised by the police:
— Xinqi Su 蘇昕琪 (@XinqiSu) September 22, 2020
— Xinqi Su 蘇昕琪 (@XinqiSu) September 22, 2020
In addition to journalism schools, local press groups and the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club have denounced the rule change. The Guardian's Helen Davidson covered the Hong Kong Journalist Association's reaction to the new rules:
Mak Yin Ting, a veteran journalist and a former chair of the HKJA, told the Guardian the new rules were a further step in tightening control on media. “It is absurd because by doing so the government, who should be monitored, is taking the power to decide who can be the monitor over them.”
Mak suggested there were two main aims: “One, to take the control of defining who is media from professional groups to a government department … The second purpose is to stop the numerous online media and journalists from university and journalism schools from publishing articles.” [Source]
Facing stiff backlash on Wednesday, the Hong Kong government offered no comment. But Beijing's Foreign Ministry Office in Hong Kong issued a statement accusing the Foreign Correspondents' Club of "meddling with Hong Kong affairs on the pretext of press freedom":
The spokesperson of the Commissioner’s Office expressed strong disapproval of and firm opposition against the unwarranted remarks FCC Hong Kong made about the Hong Kong police force’s amendment of the definition of “media representatives” under the Police General Orders, and urged the organization to immediately stop meddling with Hong Kong affairs on the pretext of press freedom.
[…] The spokesperson emphasized that there is no such thing as absolute press freedom above the law. Hong Kong is part of China, and any media practitioner in the HKSAR shall strictly and voluntarily abide by national laws applied to Hong Kong and local laws. No organization or individual shall seek privileges above the law, impede the HKSAR Government’s law-based governance, or endanger China’s national security and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability on the pretext of press freedom. [Source]