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Hong Kong’s latest injunction protects police while putting press freedom at risk

Hong Kong police detain a protestor—a moment captured by the press.
Hong Kong police detain a protestor—a moment captured by the press.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Hong Kong has been roiled in protests for months, with pro-democracy demonstrators pitted against police trying to meet chief executive Carrie Lam’s need to appear in control as China watches closely. Now, police have been granted a temporary injunction that threatens the protests and the free press.

The injunction, which has been granted for 14 days pending a hearing, is vaguely worded. It provides legal protection from “doxxing” for police, creating penalties for people who—with the intent of “intimidating, molesting, harassing, threatening, pestering or interfering”—post photos and information about officers and their families online without consent, including names, addresses, birth dates, identity card numbers, social media account information, and license plates.

The problem with the injunction, as it stands now, however, is that there is no explicit exception for journalists and reporters. Superintendent Swalikh Mohammed of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau told the South China Morning Post that the media will not be restricted under the injunction. But officially authorities haven’t made any statement about the ban’s application to media, and reporters who choose to do their jobs and show what’s going on in Hong Kong may be taking a risk.

Even if the injunction is only intended to target citizens who dox cops and their families, without an explicit reporting exception, the ban’s limits may have to be tested in cases raised by police, leaving reporters to defend their work in court. The injunction is currently worded so that anyone who “willfully” engages in any of the banned activities is subject to penalties.

That means reporters covering protests are left questioning their liability. If they publish images of police in the streets clashing with protestors, or doing anything else, frankly, they may be subject to charges of violating the injunction if they don’t get the officers’ explicit consent.

But reporting on police activity isn’t “doxxing.” The journalists who cover protests don’t have the intent to intimidate or harass police, and their work doesn’t fall under the banned activities because the requisite ill will isn’t there. If a journalist were charged with a violation, police would have to show that publication of any photo or data was intended to pester police rather than publicize information, and that won’t be so easy to prove in the case of a working journalist.

But as they test the limits of the injunction’s authority, reporters could be putting themselves in legal jeopardy, potentially facing very unpleasant consequences. The fact of having to defend a case is a punishment in and of itself, and fear of having to do so could have a chilling effect on journalism in Hong Kong even if that is not necessarily the injunction’s intended official outcome.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association says it is “extremely concerned” about the ban’s potential effects on press freedom and is seeking legal advice.