Hong Kong’s worst day for attacks on press

Hong Kong’s worst day for attacks on press

How time flies. And yet the beginning of the new decade has moved ever so slowly for many, in the midst of a global pandemic. Before COVID19 spread its contagious wings across the globe, infecting and killing millions, Hong Kong was already dealing with its own crisis. At the height of the pro-democracy protests that punctured the city for seven consecutive months, Asia’s ‘World City’ at times came to a standstill. With waves of tear gas infiltrating streets, the former British colony mirrored urban warfare at times.

And one of its darkest days was one year ago, September 29th 2019, when journalists were under fire, literally, that arguably saw the worst day for attacks on the press in Hong Kong to date.

Police stand behind the cloud of tear gas as protesters volley petrol bombs and press look on, Fleming Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong 29th September 2019

Leading up to the day, it was another tense week in the city. Bewildered Chief Executive Carrie Lam had held a ‘dialogue session’ with concerned citizens at Wan Chai’s Queen Elizabeth Stadium. With many Hongkongers voicing their growing concerns against her and the issues in the city, Lam was criticised for her attitude and critics deemed it a PR stunt.

Outside the stadium, crowds gathered whilst hardliner protesters attempted to block roads. Lam was made to wait for four hours before leaving safely.

Crowds gather outside the Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Hong Kong, 27th September 2019

Then, on the 28th September marked five years since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, thousands of protesters gathered at Tamar Park, with the majority acting peacefully. Later into the evening, hardliners occupied roads, sprayed graffiti and threw bricks into the government buildings whilst chanting pro-democracy slogans.

The Hong Kong police replied with the use of their water cannons, firing through protective water-barracks surrounding the government complex.

Water cannons were fired through barracks towards protesters after Tamar Park rally, Hong Kong,
28th September 2019

 

Tension was building.

It was the lead up to October 1st 2019, marking 70 years since China was under communist rule. Several people on the ground were calling that ‘D-day’ because protests were planned, in an attempt to spoil the Chinese Communist Party’s celebrations. With the city fighting clashes since June, many guesstimates suggested China’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) were to cross the border to intervene.

But it was the 29th of September that witnessed some of the most harrowing controversies throughout the anti-government protests, that’s still talked about today.

Media liaison police officer during protests and clashes in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

Early afternoon on a Sunday. Demonstrations were due to begin by 2 pm in Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island, but thousands of protesters began to gather early. At around 1:30 pm the Hong Kong police suddenly raised the blue flag, asking protesters to leave. Tear gas was fired soon after, and the tone of the day was already set.

Riot police standing outside of Wan Chai MTR Station, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

On Hennessy Road that goes under the Wan Chai Immigration Bridge saw protesters, donned in their black-clad attire, yellow helmets, gas masks and umbrellas.

Protesters hold up umbrellas as shields awaiting the police, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, September 29th 2019

Hong Kong police were above, pointing their rifles downwards, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds.

Riot police point their rifles down from Wan Chai’s Immigration footbridge, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

 

Protesters used their umbrellas to shield rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.

Protesters under the Immigration footbridge, Wan Chai, 29th September 2019

 

One reporter  I met that day who preferred to be kept anonymous at the time, was a casualty, as a tear gas canister exploded in his face, requiring him for immediate hospital treatment. This incident went unreported in the media, but going by the photo of his injuries I was sent, it should have been. Luckily, his injuries weren’t serious, although there were some visible nasty cuts and bruises on the bridge of the nose and under his eyes.

As violent games of cat and mouse ensued between frontline protesters and the police, the former were building make-shift road barricades.

Protesters cooperate to build road barricades on Hennessy Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

The sound of sirens grew louder that led to the growing number of riot police appearing, as pockets of demonstrators soon found themselves under arrest.

Special Tactical Squad (aka Raptor Police) were out in force.

Special Tactical Squad aka ‘Raptors’ are often deployed if the police need special assistance normally due to escalating violence, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

 

After a while, the tension seemingly eased, at least momentarily. As a squad of police were manning the Wan Chai bridge, others attempted to control crowds, including protesters, press and bystanders. Appearing tactically disorientated, the riot police retreated, descending down from the bridge before a new wave of protesters edged closer.  Initially retreating, a couple of officers are irritated by a couple of protesters – armed with a makeshift street sign as a shield – leering closer as petrol bombs are thrown from a group further along the bridge.

Riot police squads regrouping on Wan Chai’s Immigration footbridge, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

The officer then ascended back up onto the steps, at an awkward angle and fired a stray rubber bullet into the crowd, hitting Indonesian journalist Veby Mega Indah directly into her right eye.

 

A riot police officer holds rifles on the Wan Chai Immigration footbridge moments before Veby Mega Indah was shot, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

 

It was one of the worst incidents to take place during the demonstrations, as Veby subsequently discovered she would be blind after receiving immediate hospital treatment.

Veby’s story encapsulated the harsh difficulties journalists endured that day.

Veby Mega Indah lies on the ground after a riot police officer shot a stray rubber bullet hitting her in the right eye, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

In December of that year, I interviewed Veby and although her legal case has changed since then, today she is rightfully on a path to seek justice against the attack.

 

Unfortunately, the day wasn’t over for the reporters covering events on the ground. The day continued into the night with petrol bombs and tear gas regularly used during clashes.

This is where I come into the story.

Protesters down Hennessy Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

Later that evening, protesters and police were in a standoff, leading up to the flyover on Fleming Road, Wan Chai. Frontliners were violently throwing petrol bombs towards a squad of stationed riot police, who stood from a distance. At times, the gulf of teargas smoke was so thick and constant, the riot police suddenly weren’t visible.

The scene mirrored something from a video game, urban warfare. The evening light was on the cusp of becoming black, but the clusters of fiery smashed gasoline bottles turned the area into a maroon colour.

Petrol bombs and tear gas add to the colour of the late evening as police and protesters stand off against one another, Fleming Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

 

I found myself stood right at the ‘frontline’, mingled between those frontline protesters throwing anything and everything towards the police. As I took photos and quickly started video recording – as simultaneous as possible –  a gap in the crowds emerged. I was an open shot and right in the frame of the police. For a few seconds, I quickly sensed I had become in a vulnerable position. As the sound of police firing rang out, I felt a sharp whack to my left abdomen. More in shock than pain, Hongkongers shouted “medic, medic” until I repeatedly said composed myself, realised there was no break in the skin and insisted to those concerned, I was ok.

“What was it? A rubber bullet?” I shouted.

“Yeah,” someone replied.

Taking cover after rubber bullets and tear gas had been fired, Wan Chai, September 29th 2019

Moments later, police fired again

Slightly off balance because of the incident seconds earlier, I was slightly bent down. Suddenly a rubber bullet hit me again, rattling off the centre of my helmet. Two inches lower, and it would have hit me between my eyes. I immediately realised I had been ‘shot’ twice in the space of a minute, in the immediate firing line. That’s when the worry set in. I thought of Veby, shot only a couple of hours earlier. It was clear, at least then, the police were firing carelessly towards crowds. Maybe it was just me, maybe I was unlucky. But it felt erratic. I quickly ran for cover, sliding in the doorway of a store. Tear gas had been fired quickly after and my mask had been loosened during the fracas of it all. The shock, the sting and the need for oxygen were obvious.

You can watch the video and read about the incident here.

 

After composing myself, I continued covering the protests for four more hours. Fire-clad road barricades, police had deployed the water cannon, and demonstrations clashed into the night.

Fire-clad road barricades were made by protesters to slow police down, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, 29th September 2019

 

More press attacks occurred later, that saw a photographer pepper-sprayed so deliberately at close range, the photo of the incident went viral. 

 

A photographer is pepper-sprayed by a riot police officer, Hong Kong, September 29th 2019 / Stand News

September 29th was a watershed moment for Hong Kong because arguably since then press freedom has rapidly declined.

On the ground, journalists have found themselves further injured, ridiculed or even arrested, with tensions between local reporters and police, particularly at boiling point.

Fast forward one year later, foreign correspondents have been denied entry into the city whilst respectful journalists have been denied work visa extensions. Amid the widely interpreted National Security Law – that prohibits subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism –  The New York Times reportedly has shifted some of its journalist staff out of the city, relocating to Seoul, South Korea.

Under the new Police General Order rules, authorities will only recognise certain media groups / Hong Kong, July 2020

Furthermore, with the recent decision made by the Hong Kong authorities announcing they will only recognise ‘well-known non-local media’ and press ‘registered with the Government’ further indicates further scrutiny on media within the city.

 

Maybe September 29th 2019 was the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s once praised, press freedom.