Tiananmen Square crackdown

Protesters' rights are important too

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2012, 12:00am


The handover anniversary and Leung Chun-ying's inauguration on Sunday as chief executive were big tests of how well Hong Kong's police are able to work with protesters and the media. Increasingly, the relationship has been strained, heightening concerns that freedom of expression and a free press, cornerstones of our city's success, are being eroded. The events of July 1 and President Hu Jintao's visit have not changed perceptions. If lessons had been learned by officers, it was barely evident to journalists and those protesting. With only three arrests made during Hu's three-day visit, police heavy-handedness would not seem to be an issue. But media covering some events and protesters beg to differ. Pepper spray in fire extinguisher-like canisters was used at close range on demonstrators and journalists in Wan Chai on Saturday and a newspaper reporter was detained by plain-clothes police for 15 minutes at the Kai Tak cruise terminal after shouting a question at the president about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. It was as if the critical report by the Independent Police Complaints Council released in May - confirming some officers unduly restricted journalists covering last summer's visit of Vice-Premier Li Keqiang - had not been taken to heart.

But it is the manner in which police handled Sunday's rally that has been most criticised. Ensuring people's safety during a demonstration involving hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps the second biggest in Hong Kong's history, is without doubt challenging. Protesters were orderly and well behaved, though, as the single arrest attests. Slowing down the march by keeping gates in Victoria Park closed, restricting the number of road lanes that could be used and breaking the protesters into groups does not seem sensible or warranted.

Regret has been expressed over the reporter's detention, but that is not enough assurance. Police have an important role in maintaining law and order. They can still do better with balancing that job with the rights and freedoms of citizens and the media.