Police in Hong Kong have arrested the head of the city’s journalists’ union on public order offenses, amid an ongoing crackdown on public dissent and peaceful political opposition under a draconian security law imposed by Beijing.
Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA), was arrested while reporting on a meeting in Mong Kok relating to local people’s livelihood on Sept. 7, the union said in a statement on its website.
“Two plainclothes police officers at the venue stopped [Chan] and asked for his ID,” the statement said. “Just as Ronson Chan was about to show his ID to one of the female police officers, another plainclothes officer stepped forward and yelled at him to ‘cooperate.'”
“Chan asked the policeman to show his warrant card and asked the officer to confirm his full name and department, as he could only see the surname Tan,” the statement said. “But the officer immediately issued a warning, and, within a few minutes, had Chan in handcuffs under arrest, en route back to Mong Kok police station.”
Chan, who was arrested on suspicion of “obstructing a police officer” and “disorderly conduct in a public place,” was eventually released on bail after more than 11 hours in the police station, and must report back on Sept. 21.
“The HKJA deeply regrets and condemns the interception, arrest and brutal treatment of Ronson Chan by the police,” the group said. “He was cooperating with the police, yet he was still treated unreasonably and arrested.”
Chan, former deputy assignment editor at now-defunct pro-democracy news outlet Stand News, was re-elected as HKJA chairman in June.
He has frequently spoken out against ever-diminishing press freedom in the city.
He had been planning study journalism on a scholarship at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, and had been scheduled to leave Hong Kong at the end of September.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong said it was “concerned” over Chan’s arrest and was “monitoring the situation very closely.”
“Given Mr. Chan’s position as a prominent leader in Hong Kong’s journalism community, the FCC strongly urges the authorities to exercise transparency and care in handling Mr. Chan’s case,” it said.
“Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly told the public that Hong Kong’s right to press freedom and free speech … is not at risk. The FCC supports journalists’ right to cover stories without fear of harassment or arrest,” the statement said.
The statement won a rebuke from China’s foreign ministry, which said it constituted “interference with the rule of law” in Hong Kong.
“There is no absolute press freedom anywhere in the world that could be above law, and the identity of a journalist doesn’t mean they have amnesty or enjoy immunity for whatever they do,” the ministry’s representative office in Hong Kong said in a statement on its website.
“No one should engage in activities that damage Hong Kong’s stability under the name of journalism,” a spokesperson said in the statement, accusing the FCC of “taking every opportunity to attack the Hong Kong government and support anti-China forces.”
“Their tricks will bite the dust,” the statement said.
‘Seditious sheep’ authors
On the day of Chan’s arrest, a Hong Kong court found five speech therapists guilty of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display or reproduce seditious publications” under colonial-era sedition laws that have gotten a new lease of life since the national security law took effect on July 1, 2020.
The five members of the Hong Kong Speech Therapists’ Union were prosecuted over a series of children’s books depicting “seditious” sheep, which the authorities said showed support for the 2019 protest movement and “incited hatred” towards the city’s government.
The two men and three women aged 25-28 were found guilty of “conspiring to publish seditious publications,” in connection with three children’s picture books titled “The Guardians of Sheep Village,” “The Garbage Collectors of Sheep Village” and “The 12 Heroes of Sheep Village.”
Police said the sheep were intended to represent protesters who fought back against riot police in 2019, and depicted the authorities as wolves, “beautifying bad behavior” and “poisoning” children’s impressionable minds.
One book characterizes the wolves as dirty and the sheep as clean, while another lauds the actions of heroic sheep who use their horns to fight back despite being naturally peaceful.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the court verdict showed how quickly Hong Kong’s judicial system is growing similar to that in mainland China.
“Hongkongers used to watch news of people in mainland China getting prosecuted in ridiculous ways for writing political fables, but this is now happening in Hong Kong,” Wang said.
“The Hong Kong authorities should reverse this precipitous decline in [people’s] freedom and revoke the convictions of the five children’s book authors.”
The case is the first to see a conviction for “seditious publications” since 1967.
The crime of “sedition” — a common-law concept — was incorporated into Hong Kong’s Crimes Ordinance under the colonial-era government in 1938, and was originally aimed at prohibiting publications that might arouse hatred against the monarch.
Eric Lai, Hong Kong Law Fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said the conviction of the “seditious sheep” authors suggests that freedoms in the city have now regressed to pre-war colonial times, and ignores recent recommendations from United Nations human rights experts that the city stop using “sedition” to prosecute people.
“The Hong Kong courts have ignored these timely and specific United Nations documents on the crime of sedition, which shows that they are totally unwilling to comply with … the views of international human rights experts,” Lai said.
Lai said the prosecution of speech crimes also contravenes the U.N.’s Johannesburg Principles, which state that the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression should never be viewed as a threat to national security, and should come free from restrictions or penalties.
“This verdict will have a big chilling effect on the publishing industry and the creative world, now that discussing current affairs through metaphors or allegory in a children’s book can be deemed to be inciting hatred of the government,” Lai said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.