Why can't Hong Kong's leaders stand up for Hongkongers?

May 18, 2018 17:49
A Now TV cameraman is tackled to the ground by police in Beijing on May 16. Hong Kong’s leaders have been accused of failing to take up the matter, as well as other incidents of harassment of journalists, seriously with China. Image credit: i-Cable News

What's the point of having a government that will not even stand up for its citizens, let alone protect them when they are assaulted?

Yet this is precisely where we are in the wake of attacks on three Hong Kong journalists going about their work in Mainland China.

In the latest incident, on Wednesday, Now TV cameraman Chui Chun-ming was assaulted by uniformed police officers after he demanded the return of his press card taken while covering a Beijing Lawyers Association hearing relating to the disqualification of human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi.

Not only was Chui assaulted, he was also detained and only released after being forced to sign a grotesque ‘letter of repentance’, a much loved device in the Orwellian world of the Chinese state, where victims are made to apologize to those who attack them. Xie was also arrested, which is not a new experience for any lawyer daring to represent human rights campaigners.

Instead of condemning this brazen assault, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vaguely said she was concerned about journalists working on the Mainland and followed this up with a sharp reminder that ‘they should respect and abide by laws and regulations there’.

There is no evidence of law-breaking by either Chui or two other Hong Kong reporters, who were assaulted the week before when covering the tenth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake.

In the case of the Sichuan assaults, the journalists received an apology but there is no record of action being taken against their assailants, who may or may not have been law enforcement officials.

The government view seems to be that the journalists are deemed to be guilty until proven innocent, thus turning the presumption of innocence on its head. However in both these cases there is clear and recorded evidence of what happened.

Meanwhile the best that Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung could do was to say that these matters had been reported to the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, again not a word of complaint. The act of making a report hardly steps up to the mark in these circumstances.

And in Legco, the council’s president, Andrew Leung, acted decisively to prevent lawmakers from discussing this matter in an emergency debate. As usual, the council’s anti-democrats put brown nosing to the bosses in Beijing ahead of protecting the interests of Hongkongers.

Journalists working on the Mainland from other jurisdictions expect and routinely obtain the support of their governments when they get into trouble as a consequence of carrying out their duties. This is why foreign journalists tend to be handled with kid gloves by Chinese officials…at worst they are expelled.

Admittedly Hong Kong journalists are in a different situation because the SAR is part of China but Hong Kong’s very status as an 'autonomous region' only means something when the region’s government has the courage to stand up for its citizens when they get in to trouble.

No one pretends that it is easy for the people running the SAR government to show some backbone when dealing with their masters in Beijing but their supine attitude in all matters and their evident determination to see their role as cheerleaders rather than being any other kind of leader adds to the cynicism and alarm of Hong Kong citizens.

Having been a journalist for way too long I am well aware that media people are not in the most admired or even most liked of trades and so singling out the treatment of journalists for comment is likely to be viewed as self-serving and of no particular interest.

However journalists are not asking for special treatment, they simply want to be allowed to get on with their jobs. Where journalists have broken the law, they most definitely need to face the consequences. But in the recent attacks on Hong Kong reporters in the Mainland the only people visibly breaking the law were their attackers.

What remains is a chilling impression that Hong Kong people can be attacked on the Mainland without consequence. If this is so, journalists -- or even businessmen, who have faced similar treatment -- are at risk when they head north.

I just have one message for Carrie Lam and her colleagues: Have the courage to stand up for Hong Kong and for its people. It's not a big ask.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author