The police seem to have the misconception that the work of journalists is an obstacle to their operation, or sometimes even a threat to public order. That mindset is reflected in the way journalists are treated when covering protests and demonstrations, especially those taking place outside the central government's liaison office in Western District. Increasingly, the media are subject to more restrictions than is customary, stoking fears that press freedom, one of the city's cornerstones of success, is being eroded.
Since last year, tension between the media and police has surged after reporters covering protests at the liaison office were confined to a so-called press zone, far away from the action. Reporters were not even allowed to approach activists during a protest early this month. The restrictions are clearly imposed without giving due regard to the role of the media in a free society like Hong Kong.
Police chief Andy Tsang Wai-hung has raised hope of a more accommodating approach to the media. Earlier, he admitted that officers might lack the skills to handle the media during protests and promised more flexibility in the future. Regrettably, the arrangements for those covering a run last Sunday commemorating the June 4 crackdown shows the spirit of a free press has yet to be fully appreciated. The force allowed reporters to climb up the flowerbeds outside the office, but restricted access to only TV stations. Not surprisingly, the arrangement angered the radio and the print media.
The explanations by the police are baffling. Citing space constraints as the reason, a senior superintendent said police had to strike a balance between public order and facilitating the needs of the media. The comment seems to suggest the two are in conflict, with public order having to be sacrificed in order to facilitate media coverage. But the truth is simple. Reporters need to stay close to the event to tell the public what is happening. It is difficult to see how the presence of the media will turn things out of control. The remarks reflect poorly on the police understanding of a free press and its importance to Hong Kong.
This is not the first time the police and the media have been at odds over news gathering arrangements. The controversy surrounding the visit of Vice-Premier Li Keqiang last summer underlines the need for better communication. Sadly, lessons have not been learned.
The police surely have an important role to play in maintaining law and order. But the importance of a free press is no less critical. Press freedom is protected by the Basic Law. Police General Orders state that officers at the scene of an incident shall facilitate the work of the news media as much as possible and accord media representatives consideration and courtesy. It remains, therefore, the duty of the police to facilitate media coverage while maintaining public order.