Freelance photojournalist released from detention as criticism of police harassment mounts

Police prepare to fire tear gas towards residents and protesters from a pedestrian crossing in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon in Hong Kong on Oct. 27, 2019. Photo via AFP.
Police prepare to fire tear gas towards residents and protesters from a pedestrian crossing in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon in Hong Kong on Oct. 27, 2019. Photo via AFP.

A freelance photographer arrested on Sunday after reportedly being ordered to remove her protective mask was released this morning amid a flurry of criticism of the arrest and other incidents of journalists being harassed by police.

May James was arrested while covering a protest in Mong Kok for HKFP yesterday evening and detained overnight. James, a Hong Kong Journalists Association and Foreign Correspondents’ Club member, was released this morning, according to HKFP.

Following her arrest, HKFP issued a statement calling for her “immediate release” and an explanation as to why she had been detained, while also noting that James “carries all the appropriate credentials and kit, including a press vest and passes.”

HKFP founder Tom Grundy also noted in a tweet, “Reports that May did not show her press credentials are not true.”

The FCC sharply condemned the arrest in a statement today, and noted that police had asked James to remove her face mask, despite the city’s controversial mask ban making exemptions for those who wear masks as protective equipment as part of their job, including journalists.

“Several other reporters were also required by police to remove their face masks in the course of their reporting duties Sunday night, despite government assurances that journalists would be exempt from the face-mask ban while carrying out their professional duties,” the FCC statement reads. “Police appeared to use force when removing the masks and interfered with the work of reporters covering the street protests.”

The organization said it had been able to find out where James was being detained by using channels established during a recent meeting with police representatives.

HKFP later reported that James was released without charge, according to her lawyer.

It was a difficult weekend for journalists all around, with RTHK reporting on several incidents of reporters and cameramen being harassed and injured by police. While some of the injuries appeared accidental, they said, in other cases “the reporters appear to be the targets of police aggression.”

One of the state broadcaster’s own journalists was manhandled by officers who ripped off his gas mask, despite his press affiliation being obvious, and despite there being no protesters around at the time. The same journalists was later pepper sprayed at close range.

One video from last night appears to show police deliberately and excessively pepper spraying journalists and pointing shotguns at them used to fire bean bag rounds and rubber bullets.

RTHK condemned the use of “unnecessary force” against their staffer, and accused police of “violently interfering with normal reporting duties.”

The broadcaster’s union called for an investigation into the incident, saying it believed police deliberately targeted journalists, and that officers appeared to be incapable of controlling their emotions.

The FCC, meanwhile, echoed calls for an investigation in its statement.

“The FCC again calls for an independent investigation into police violence against journalists and interference with the media’s right to cover the protests under Hong Kong law,” the statement reads.

“We have expressed our concern about such incidents since the start of the protests in June, yet violence against journalists and interference continue. These incidents, including the arrest of the photojournalist last evening, undermine Hong Kong’s reputation as a place where the media can work freely, without harassment or intimidation.”

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