Robust and independent news media are an important part of any democracy - or even pseudo-democracy as we have here in Hong Kong. They provide checks and balances, monitoring governments and officials.
Without a free press there would have been no Watergate in the US, while in HK Henry Tang would almost certainly have been made chief executive in 2012 if the press had not found out about his luxurious, illegal basement man-cave.
So it is deeply disturbing that our Police Commissioner, Chris Tang, says that the new national security law could be used against what he calls “fake news”. Twice last week Mr Tang accused an unnamed newspaper of linking children who attended a police college open day to “black violence”.
While Mr Tang did not explicitly name the newspaper, his criticism came after Apple Daily ran a front-page story saying children who attended the open day were given toy guns to play with inside a mock-up of an MTR carriage.
Photos from the scene quickly spread on social media, with many people commenting that the images raised disturbing memories of the violent, aggressive tactics used by police against protesters and commuters in Prince Edward MTR station during the 2019 demonstrations. One photo even shows a child next to a life-sized cardboard cutout of a heavily armed officer.
Now there is simply nothing fake about the photos. Some were taken by the Reuters news agency. But nonetheless our police chief went on the offensive, accusing the newspaper of inciting hatred and dividing society. He said that while there are no laws specifically targeting “fake news” the police could consider whether those involved had broken the national security law.
This really should set alarm bells ringing. The national security law is vague and nebulous, and the idea of police using it against journalists just because they don’t like a report is worrying indeed. It smacks of a police state.
The police and press have had - to put it mildly - a strained relationship since the anti-government protests. Many journalists complained of being targeted by officers, with one Indonesian reporter losing an eye after being hit by a rubber bullet or sponge grenade. Reporters and photographers even turned up to a police briefing in full protective gear in order to get their point across.
Instead of making heavy-handed threats to the media Mr Tang might want to think more about the public image he wants his officers to portray. Is it really a good idea to focus on guns and rifles as a selling point for the force to children? Is it really a good idea to intimidate journalists?
It is essential for society that journalists should be able to report the news without danger of arbitrary arrest and prosecution. We need a free and fair press, not one that is hounded by fear of the draconian national security law.
(Alex Price is a journalist who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over 30 years.)
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